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Dealing With Earwax

Why Do Ears Make Wax?

Earwax is made in the outer ear canal, the area between the fleshy part of the ear on the outside of the head and the middle ear. The medical term for earwax is cerumen (seh-ROO-mun).

Earwax has many important jobs. It:

  • acts as a waterproof lining of the ear canal, protecting it and the eardrum from germs that can cause infection
  • traps dirt, dust, and other particles, keeping them from injuring or irritating the eardrum

The wax makes its way through the outer ear canal to the opening of the ear. Then it either falls out or comes out during bathing. In most people, the outer ear canal makes earwax all the time, so the canal always has enough wax in it.

Does Earwax Need to Be Removed?

Usually, there's no need to remove earwax. Sticking anything into a child's ears raises the risk of infection or permanent damage to eardrums and hearing. Cotton swabs are handy for a variety of grooming needs, but should not be used to remove earwax. In most cases, regular bathing is enough to keep it at healthy levels.

While some people have more earwax than others, in general the ear makes as much wax as it needs. Rarely, kids' ears do make too much earwax. If it affects hearing or causes pain or discomfort, a doctor can remove it.

Parents — and kids — shouldn't attempt to remove earwax at home, even with remedies that promise to be safe and effective. Doing so risks damage to the ear canal and, possibly, a child's hearing.

What Can Parents Do?

If your child complains of ear discomfort and you see earwax in the ear, it's OK to wipe the outside of the ear with a washcloth. But don't use a cotton swab, a finger, or anything else to poke inside the ear. It could damage the delicate ear canal and eardrum, or pack the wax in even further, leading to infection.

Check with your doctor before using an over-the-counter earwax removal treatment.

When Should I Call the Doctor?

Call the doctor if your child has:

  • ear pain or discomfort
  • hearing problems
  • an uncomfortable blocked feeling in the ears

In infants and toddlers, tugging at the ears can be sign of an ear problem.

How Do Doctors Remove Earwax?

Sometimes doctors will remove earwax:

  • if it's painful or uncomfortable
  • if it interferes with hearing
  • to get a better view of the eardrum to check for problems

Earwax removal usually is done in the doctor's office. There might be a little discomfort but it isn't painful. If a child can't sit still or cooperate with the doctor, removal is done in an operating room with the child under general anesthesia.

Doctors use different tools to remove earwax, including:

  • a tiny device with a curve at the end (a curette)
  • graspers
  • suction
  • a handheld tool with a light, used in regular checkups to see far into the ear canal (an otoscope)

Removal takes just a few minutes. If there's a sign of infection, the doctor may prescribe antibiotic ear drops. Further home treatment usually isn't needed.

What Else Should I Know?

Ear candling has gained a lot of attention as a home remedy for earwax removal. But it hasn't been proved to be safe or effective, and can be dangerous.

In ear candling, one end of a cone-type device is inserted into the ear canal and the other end is set on fire. The idea is that the fire and the cone form a vacuum and extract the wax. But trying this at home carries a high risk of:

  • burning the ear canal
  • punching a hole in the eardrum, which can cause permanent hearing damage

Whenever you have any concerns about your child's ears or hearing, call your doctor.

Date reviewed: October 2014