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Ear wax

Definition

The ear canal is lined with hair follicles and glands that produce a waxy oil called cerumen. The wax usually makes its way to the opening of the ear, where it falls out or is removed by washing.

Wax can build up and block the ear canal. Wax blockage is one of the most common causes of hearing loss.

Alternative Names

Ear impaction; Cerumen impaction; Ear blockage

Causes

Ear wax protects the ear by:

In some people, the glands produce more wax than can be easily removed from the ear. This extra wax may harden in the ear canal and block the ear. When you try to clean the ear, you may instead push wax deeper and block the ear canal.

Symptoms

Treatment

Most cases of ear wax blockage can be treated at home. The following can be used to soften wax in the ear:

Another method is to wash out the wax.

To avoid damaging your ear or causing an infection:

After the wax is removed, dry the ear thoroughly. You may use a few drops of alcohol in the ear or a hair dryer set on low to help dry the ear.

You may clean the outer ear canal by using a cloth or paper tissue wrapped around your finger. Mineral oil can be used to moisturize the ear and prevent the wax from drying.

If you cannot remove the wax plug or you have discomfort, consult a health care provider, who may remove the wax by:

Outlook (Prognosis)

The ear may become blocked with wax again in the future. Hearing loss is often temporary, and usually returns completely after the blockage is removed.

Rarely, trying to remove ear wax may cause an infection in the ear canal or damage to the eardrum.

When to Contact a Medical Professional

See your health care provider if your ears are blocked with wax and you are unable to remove the wax.

Also call if you have an ear wax blockage and you develop new symptoms, such as:

References

Riviello RJ, Brown NA. Otolaryngologic procedures. In: Roberts JR, Hedges JR, eds. Clinical Procedures in Emergency Medicine. 5th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Saunders Elsevier; 2009:chap 64.

Armstrong C. Diagnosis and management cerumen impaction. Am Fam Physician. 2009 Nov 1;80(9):1011-1013.

House JC, Lee DJ. Topical therapies of external ear disorders. In: Cummings CW, Flint PW, Haughey BH, et al, eds. Otolaryngology: Head & Neck Surgery. 5th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Mosby Elsevier; 2010:chap 138.

O'Handley JG, Tobin EJ, Shah AR. Otorhinolaryngology. In: Rakel RE, ed. Textbook of Family Medicine. 8th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Saunders Elsevier; 2011:chap 19.



Review Date: 9/4/2012
Reviewed By: Linda J. Vorvick, MD, Medical Director and Director of Didactic Curriculum, MEDEX Northwest Division of Physician Assistant Studies, Department of Family Medicine, UW Medicine, School of Medicine, University of Washington; Seth Schwartz, MD, MPH, Otolaryngologist, Virginia Mason Medical Center, Seattle, Washington. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M. Health Solutions, Ebix, Inc.
The information provided herein should not be used during any medical emergency or for the diagnosis or treatment of any medical condition. A licensed medical professional should be consulted for diagnosis and treatment of any and all medical conditions. Links to other sites are provided for information only -- they do not constitute endorsements of those other sites. © 1997- A.D.A.M., Inc. Any duplication or distribution of the information contained herein is strictly prohibited.
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