Earwax build-up 

Introduction 

A build-up of earwax can cause pain and hearing loss 

What is earwax made from?

Earwax is made up of different substances that help stop the skin that lines your ear canal from drying and cracking. Earwax contains:

  • desquamated keratin squames – dead, flattened cells on the outer layer of skin
  • cerumen – a wax-like substance produced by sweat glands
  • sebum – an oily substance produced by the sebaceous glands (glands in the skin) 
  • various other substances – such as cosmetics and dirt

Earwax is a waxy material produced by sebaceous glands inside the ear. It cleans, lubricates and protects the lining of the ear by trapping dirt and repelling water.

Earwax is slightly acidic and has antibacterial properties. Without earwax, the skin inside your ear would become dry, cracked, infected or waterlogged and sore.

Earwax can be wet or dry, hard or soft. Soft earwax is more common in children and hard earwax is more likely to cause problems.

Earwax problems

Earwax doesn't usually cause problems, but if too much earwax is produced it can lead to a blocked and painful ear or hearing loss.

Read more about the symptoms of earwax build-up.

Repeated ear infections, flaky skin near your ear, or hair in your ear canals can also increase your risk of developing earwax problems.

To reduce your risk of developing problems, avoid putting objects into your ears, such as cotton buds, matchsticks and hairpins.

As well as possibly damaging your ear canal or eardrum, sticking things in your ears can also cause earwax to become lodged in your ear canal.

Read more about what causes earwax problems.

What you can do

Eardrops, available from your pharmacy, can be used to soften and loosen the earwax, which may help it work its way out naturally. Speak to your pharmacist about which eardrops are suitable for you.

Avoid sticking cotton buds in your ears because it can push the earwax further into your ears.

When to see your GP

Ask to see the nurse at your GP surgery if you're having problems with earwax. Don't attempt to remove the earwax yourself without first speaking to a healthcare professional.

Your practice nurse, GP or a hearing specialist may examine the inside of your ears using an instrument called an auriscope. An auriscope, also known as an otoscope, has a light and a magnifier at one end to allow the inside of your ear to be clearly seen.

During the examination, your doctor will see if there's a build-up of earwax and whether it's impacted (firmly lodged in your ear canal). If you have hearing loss, it may be due to impacted earwax.

If there is a large build-up of earwax, it may need to be removed. If eardrops haven't worked, another treatment called ear irrigation may be recommended. This involves using a pressurised flow of water to remove the earwax.

Read more about how earwax is treated.

Complications of earwax

There are several complications that can occur as a result of impacted earwax or ear irrigation.

An ear infection may develop if you have untreated impacted earwax.

If the earwax touches your eardrum, it may cause discomfort and vertigo (the sensation that you're moving even though you're still).

The following complications have been reported from some patients after having ear irrigation:

Read more about the complications of earwax.




Page last reviewed: 10/03/2014

Next review due: 10/03/2016

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