Earwax build-up - Treatment 

Treating earwax build-up 

In most cases, earwax falls out on its own, so there's no need to remove it. However, if it's completely blocking your ear canal and causing hearing loss, it may need to be removed.

Earwax also sometimes needs to be removed so that an impression of the ear canal can be made for a hearing aid mould. It can also be removed if the earwax is causing the hearing aid to whistle.

Eardrops

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

Eardrops should only be used when they're at room temperature. Pour a few drops into the affected ear and lie on your side for a few minutes, with the affected ear facing upwards.

This will allow the eardrops to soak into the wax and soften it. Repeating this two or three times a day for between three and five days will cause the plug to soften. The wax should then gradually fall out of your ear bit by bit.

Eardrops should not be used if you have a perforated eardrum (a hole or tear in the eardrum).

Ear irrigation

Ear irrigation may be recommended if your earwax blockage persists, even after using eardrops. It involves using a pressurised flow of water to remove the build-up of earwax.

An electronic ear irrigator is used, rather than a metal syringe (which was used in the past), to avoid damaging the ear. The irrigator has a variable pressure control so that syringing can begin at the lowest pressure.

During the procedure, a controlled flow of water will be squirted into your ear canal to clean out the earwax. The water is a similar temperature to your body.

While irrigating your ear, the healthcare professional treating you may hold your ear at different angles to ensure the water reaches all of your ear canal.

They may also look inside your ear several times using an auriscope (an instrument that's used to examine the inside of the ear) to check whether the wax is coming out.

Ear irrigation is a painless procedure, but your ear may feel strange as the water is squirted around your ear canal. Tell the person who is treating you if you experience any:

These symptoms may be caused by an ear infection and will need further investigation.

If ear irrigation is unsuccessful at removing earwax from your ear, your GP may recommend:

  • using eardrops again and returning for another irrigation
  • putting water into your ear before irrigating again after 15 minutes
  • that you are referred to an ear, nose and throat (ENT) specialist to remove the earwax

When ear irrigation is not recommended

Ear irrigation isn't suitable for everyone. It shouldn't be used if you have:

  • previously had problems with irrigation, such as pain in your ear or severe vertigo
  • a perforated eardrum, or if you've had a perforated eardrum in the last 12 months
  • a discharge of mucus from your ear, which may indicate an undiagnosed perforation
  • had a middle ear infection (otitis media) in the past six weeks 
  • a grommet (a small, hollow tube that's surgically inserted into your ear if you've had a build-up of fluid that causes hearing difficulties  see below)
  • had ear surgery, apart from cases of extruded grommets, within the last 18 months
  • cleft palate (whether repaired or not)
  • a foreign body in your ear
  • a severe external ear infection (otitis externa) with pain in the ear canal or pinna (the visible part of your ear)

Ear irrigation isn't recommended if you have a grommet. The grommet creates a passage in your middle ear, which allows water to enter during syringing.

Grommets come out naturally and the passage created by the grommet should eventually heal. Once the passage has healed, you can have ear irrigation.

You shouldn't have ear irrigation if the ear to be treated is your only hearing ear. This is because there's a small chance it could cause permanent hearing loss.

Young children who cannot tolerate it and some people with learning difficulties may also not be able to have ear irrigation.

Other treatments

If eardrops and ear irrigation prove ineffective at removing your earwax, or if you're unsuitable for these treatments, there are some alternative options that you may want to consider. These are described below.

  • Microsuction - where a special suction device is used to remove the earwax under a microscope. The procedure is quick, safe and painless, and it doesn't involve putting liquid into your ear.
  • Aural toilet - where an instrument called a Jobson Horne probe is used. A Jobson Horne probe is a thin metal instrument with a small ring at one end that the specialist can use to remove earwax from your ear canal. 

Page last reviewed: 10/03/2014

Next review due: 10/03/2016

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Comments

The 14 comments posted are personal views. Any information they give has not been checked and may not be accurate.

Buddys mum said on 02 September 2014

I have to have wax sucked out of my ears with the microsuction wax sucking vaccum cleaner for ears thing every six months. It tickles and sounds like fireworks are going off but it's just the machine sucking the offending earwax out. Having it done on thursday, can't wait because the wax has been driving me mad.

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jeandez said on 31 August 2014

I don't understand why this can't be offered on the NHS when it is more dangerous to have ear syringing, either. I also agree with many other posters that NHS should make wax removal a higher priority. Needless deafness indeed!


My 77 year old [severely deaf, mentally ill and suffering with dementia] sister after six week's of going through getting appointments and putting in oil drops, was hurt during the syringing process, and she now has to wait for suction.... 139 days per the booking on line programme..... and she has to see her GP re the damage to her ear.

This does not seem cost effective to me. If the audiology out patients were able to remove wax and proceed there and then with doing the ear mould it would be cheaper, safer and more convenient for all concerned. Really, she should not have to suffer for nearly half a year - I worry that she will permanently lose communication and other ability due the interreaction of her conditions - dementia patients need stimulation to maintain function and deafness deprives her of this.

It makes me angry, too

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pandapop said on 16 July 2014

I used to have my ears syringed, as I've found oil and ear wax drops did nothing. However, a few years ago I visited a health centre because my doctor's surgery had such a long waiting time, but the nurse at the centre was so rude and told me I was wasting NHS money by asking for my ears to be syringed. He was so horrible to me and I was so fed up with waiting to have the problem sorted that when he eventually said he could do it for me I refused and left feeling extremely upset.

The only good thing to come from this appointment was that he recommended microsuction. I now get this done once or twice a year but have to go privately in London and the price has risen to £80. It's worth it though as it is quick and painless. I don't understand why this can't be offered on the NHS when it is more dangerous to have ear syringing. What do people do who can't afford this treatment or have nowhere local for them to obtain it? I was made to feel like it was my fault that I have an ear wax problem, but I don't poke things in my ears and drops don't work, so would the NHS rather that people like me remain deaf for the rest of their lives? It really makes me angry.

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baz9195 said on 31 May 2014

cgn808 you wuz robbed paying £270 privately for microsuction - I had it today for £80 in London W1. *Very* slight discomfort and noise, but so quick and effective! Long waiting times for GP and practice nurse appointments meant hanging on for NHS irrigation was not an option. Agree with many other posters that NHS should make wax removal a higher priority. How much needless deafness thru wax, particularly among older patients??

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Charlotte53 said on 17 May 2014

I got treatment the next day after I went to my GP about my blocked ears. They used the irrigation method and I was very happy with it! It wasn't painful, it just felt quite weird and it made my eyes water, but it was worth it because I could hear so clearly after!

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Sugar daddy said on 24 April 2014

Over the years I have had all three methods of removing wax. The usual method was water irrigation. However when I had Ramsey Hunt syndrome the specialist used the Aural toilet method which was excruciatingly painful and was not a success. Further on into my treatment I was given microsuction which was a great success.

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cgn808 said on 03 March 2014

Recently my GP noted that my right eardrum was coated with wax and needed syringing . The waiting period was seven weeks so I asked for a private referral. Within a week I had the wax removed by suction. The procedure took about a minute and the cost was £270. My hearing was restored to 'normal'.
Why does loss of hearing caused by excess wax receive such a low priority with some Health Centres? I gather, anecdotally that some referrals are made to a Practice Nurse within a few days. Surely the priority should be to restore normal hearing as quickly as possible.

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sellerby said on 01 January 2014

I had an ear infection two months ago, had two lots of antibiotics, a spray and drops, before it cleared up. It was flucloxacillin that finally sorted it out but had a lousy effect on the rest of my body (still worth it!). I still couldn't hear anything however and was referred to my local ENT at the hospital who did micro suction to suck out the infection fluid that had dried up inside my ear. Then I had to put olive oil in my ear for two weeks before going back for more micro suction to get rid of the hard wax. Not uncomfortable, bit weird but amazing when they sorted it. Micro suction is definitely to be recommended!! Ask your go to refer you to ENT. Worth their weight in gold.

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peter4lc said on 21 October 2013

I note that the guidance states that drops should be used for 3-5 days. Last year I needed my left ear syringing and was told by my local practice that I should use drops for 14 days. I now need my right ear syringing and they are inexplicably saying that I should use drops for 3-4 weeks for "health and safety" reasons.

It is difficult not be a cynic and conclude that they want to reduce the number of patients requesting this treatment.

What about the health and safety implications of crossing the road and not being able to hear traffic?

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informedpatient said on 25 May 2013

Based on experience with my 93 year old father, microsuction to remove embedded earwax seems to work very well. He went to an experienced microsuction operator at our local general hospital in Hillingdon and it only took a couple of minutes for each ear and was not unpleasant. I do not understand why NHS Choices describes the technique as "possibly uncomfortable" as my father said he barely noticed it. Common sense would suggest that having wax carefully removed with a small dry suction tube is going to be less of an ordeal than a technique involving liquid in the ear. I was having to shout when speaking to my father before he had this done and he immediately got his hearing back owing to this technique. Would recommend if there is an experienced microsuction operator at your local hospital/health centre. Based on my experience, your GP may not necessarily realise the benefits of this technique which was recommended by a member of staff at the hearing aid centre attended by my father.

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Strawman51 said on 08 November 2011

I would like to know if I could syringe my ears myself. I have been deaf in my left ear for 10 days now accompanied with hissing like 'white noise' it is driving me mad, and I have to wait another 7 days before I can see the practise nurse.
I am using Otex eardrops which the Dr prescribed me, it worked well before, but this time it just seems to be lying on top of the wax, which I probably pushed down further with my attempts to loosen it.
I am amazed at how debilitating it is, e.g. crossing roads, and knowing where sound is coming from.
I wonder if it would be possible to go to A & E to get it fixed as the Otex doesn't seem to be making any difference.

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thomastank74 said on 21 July 2011

I have had a life long problem with ear wax. From an early age I would regularly get my ears syringed at my local surgery.
This all changed when it was decided to use these water pump based machines. These machines were originaly designed to clean teeth.
The problem with using these machines in the inner ear is that they use a small pump that pushes the water in a way that hits the parts of the inner ear like someone is banging on a drum. This process has left me with hearing problems and a fear of ever having this done again. I am sure if your wax problem is small the pump machines clear it quickly and this problem does not occur but for anyone with a more substantial amount of wax these machines should be avoided as the long term banging sensation created by the pump in the ear is awful.
I now make sure that I get my ears syringed the old fashioned way, with a steady flow of water from an old style metal syringe, during my annual stay in Italy. This is done by a trained specialist and not by a healthcare assistant or other type of semi-admin/healthcare member of staff using a pump based machine no doubt procurred by the means of whichever was the cheapest machine available.
I feel strongly that the use of these pump based machines to irrigate ears should be reviewed.

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pablito25 said on 09 July 2011

It's not true to say that irrigation is no longer available. I had this done yesterday by the practice nurse at my GP's health centre. Such a relief! Maybe you need to try another doctor or check out you local ENT clinic. The proper safe machines are available to buy - Google shows them at around £165. There are also cheap less safe DIY options out there ....

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Bob12345 said on 12 April 2011

I have had problems with excessive earwax for over 20 years. I regularly use olive olive but it continues to build up and have to have both ears irrigated.

That was the case but 2 or 3 years ago my doctor said that irrigation would no longer be done. Walk in centres say the same. I am now constantly asking people to repeat themselves and sometimes my girlfriend thinks I'm ignoring her.

Why is irrigation no longer available?

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