2017-09-01 / OnCall

Wax On, Wax Off?

Crystal Duffy, DO

Q: Is using cotton swabs to clean your ears really that bad? Are there any safe alternatives?

A: It is important to first know what earwax (cerumen) is to properly understand how to clean it or if we need to clean it at all. Cerumen or earwax is healthy in normal amounts and serves as a self-cleaning agent with protective, lubricating and antibacterial properties. Self-cleaning here means there is a slow and orderly movement of earwax and dead skin cells from the eardrum to the ear opening. Old earwax is constantly being transported, assisted by chewing and jaw motion, from the ear canal to the ear opening where, most of the time, it dries, flakes and falls out. Earwax is not formed in the deep part of the ear canal near the eardrum. It is only formed in the outer one-third of the ear canal. So, when a patient has wax blockage against the eardrum, it is often because he has been probing the ear with such things as cotton-tipped applicators, bobby pins or twisted napkin corners. These objects only push the wax in deeper.

The American Academy of Otolaryngology discourages earwax removal. The ears should only be cleaned when enough earwax accumulates to cause cerumen impaction symptoms. To clean the ears, wash the external ear with a cloth, but do not insert anything into the ear canal. Most cases of ear wax blockage respond to home treatments used to soften wax. Patients can try a few drops of mineral oil, baby oil or glycerin. Detergent drops such as hydrogen peroxide or carbamide peroxide may also aid in the removal of wax.

Crystal Duffy, DO
Geisinger Gray’s Woods

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