Introduction 

Earwax is produced inside your ears to keep them clean and free of germs. It usually passes out of the ears harmlessly, but sometimes too much can build up and block the ears.

A build-up of earwax is a common problem that can often be treated using eardrops bought from a pharmacy.

If pharmacy treatment doesn't work, contact your GP surgery. They may suggest having your ears washed out.

If these treatments don't help, your GP may refer you to an ear, nose and throat (ENT) department for specialised treatment.

This page covers:

Causes of earwax build-ups

Symptoms of an earwax build-up

What to do if your ear is blocked

When to see your GP

Treatments to remove earwax

How to prevent an earwax build-up

What can cause an earwax build-up?

Some people regularly get blocked ears because they naturally produce a lot of earwax.

Other factors that can increase the risk of too much earwax include:

  • producing naturally hard or dry earwax
  • having narrow or hairy ear canals (the tube between the opening of the ear and the eardrum)
  • being elderly, as earwax becomes drier with age
  • bony growths in the outer part of the ear canal

Earwax can also block your ear if you frequently insert objects into your ear canal, such as cotton buds, ear plugs or hearing aids.

Symptoms of an earwax build-up

A build-up of earwax in your ear can cause:

These problems will usually improve once the excess earwax has been removed.

What to do if you think your ear is blocked

Don't try to remove a build-up of earwax yourself with your fingers, a cotton bud or any other object. This can damage your ear and push the wax further down.

If the earwax is only causing minor problems, you can try buying some eardrops from a pharmacy. These can help soften the earwax so that it falls out naturally.

There are several different types of eardrops you can use, including drops containing sodium bicarbonate, olive oil or almond oil.

However, eardrops aren't suitable for everyone and some can irritate the skin. For example, eardrops shouldn't be used if you have a perforated eardrum (a hole or tear in your eardrum).

Speak to your pharmacist about the most suitable product for you and make sure you read the leaflet that comes with it.

When to see your GP

Contact your GP surgery if you have particularly troublesome symptoms or eardrops haven't helped after three to five days.

Your GP or practice nurse will look inside your ears to check if they're blocked and might carry out some simple hearing tests.

They may suggest using eardrops for a bit longer, or they may carry out a minor procedure called ear irrigation to clean out your ear canal.

If these treatments aren't suitable or don't help, your GP may refer you to the ENT department of your nearest hospital for more specialised treatments such as microsuction or an aural toilet.

Treatments to remove earwax

There are several different earwax removal treatments available.

The main treatments are:

  • eardrops – drops used several times a day for a few days to soften the earwax so that it falls out by itself
  • ear irrigation – a quick and painless procedure where an electric pump is used to push water into your ear and wash the earwax out
  • microsuction – a quick and painless procedure where a small device is used to suck the earwax out of your ear
  • aural toilet – where a thin instrument with a small hoop at one end is used to clean your ear and scrape out the earwax

Not all these treatments are suitable for everyone. Your pharmacist or doctor can let you know what treatments may work for you and they can tell you about any associated risks or side effects.

Preventing an earwax build-up

Some people are naturally prone to earwax building up in their ears and may need frequent treatment to remove it when it becomes a problem.

It's not clear if there's anything you can do to stop earwax blocking your ears, although some doctors recommend using eardrops regularly to keep your earwax soft.

Don't try to scrape out the earwax with your finger or an object inserted into your ear, as this this can make the problem worse.

Speak to your doctor for advice if earwax builds up in your ears regularly.

Page last reviewed: 11/12/2015

Next review due: 11/12/2017