Dealing with ear wax

Ear wax is a normal, healthy substance which helps to protect our ears from infection. It usually breaks down naturally and falls out of the ears in tiny flakes.

If you wear a hearing aid, or have a narrow or curving ear canal, the wax may build up in your ear, causing discomfort, a sensation of fullness, some loss of hearing or whistling from your hearing aid. Deal with this straight away: wax comes out more easily if it has not had time to go hard. Never try to dig it out with a cotton bud or any other object. You may injure your ear, and you are likely to just push the wax further down the ear canal. There are several things you can do to clear the wax.

If you have a mastoid cavity, a perforated eardrum, are prone to ear infections, have been told to keep your ears dry, have had past surgery or injury to your ears, consult a doctor before applying any of the following treatment options. Inappropriate treatment might lead to serious ear trouble.

Ear drops

The simplest type of eardrop is ordinary olive oil. This gently softens the wax, which may move out of your ear naturally. Use a dropper to apply the oil more easily. Warm the oil up to NO MORE than body temperature and lie down on one side. Fill your ear with oil and stay in that position for 5-10 minutes. Do not put any cotton wool in your ear, as this will absorb the oil and stop it from working into the wax. After 5-10 minutes, sit up, holding a tissue to your ear to catch the oil as it runs out of your ear. Then, if necessary, do the same thing in the other ear. Olive oil is unlikely to cause any irritation to your ear, but it takes quite a long time to have an effect on the wax. You will need to repeat this treatment daily for up to two weeks.

You can also buy special ear drops from a chemist. Read the instructions, as some drops are stronger than others and should only be used for very short periods.

Eardrops (including olive oil) may at first make your ears more blocked up, as the wax softens and expands. However it needs to go through this phase so that it can come out of your ear.

Syringing

Most cases of wax can be solved by ear drops alone. However, if there is a big build-up, the drops may not be enough and you may need to have your ears syringed. Your local GP practice will be able to check your ears and tell you if there is still enough wax to need syringing. If syringing is necessary, the practice nurse will normally do it. The treatment involves flushing out the wax with a stream of water and normally takes a few minutes. If you have had a cleft palate or have only one hearing ear, check with a doctor before having your ears syringed.

Aural toilet and microsuction

In some cases where the wax is not too far down your ear, instead of syringing your doctor may just scoop the wax out of your ear with a special instrument.

If your ears cannot be syringed for a medical reason, your GP may refer you to the local Ear Nose and Throat hospital department for microsuction. This means that the wax is sucked out of your ear with an instrument like a tiny hoover.