Ear Pain

 

The ears produce a substance called earwax that helps keep bacteria out of the ear and protects the skin in the ear canal. Occasionally, earwax can build up in the ear and cause discomfort or hearing loss.

What increases the risk of earwax buildup?

This condition is more likely to develop in people who:

  • Are male
  • Are elderly
  • Naturally produce more earwax
  • Clean their ears often with cotton swabs
  • Use earplugs often
  • Use in-ear headphones often
  • Wear hearing aids
  • Have narrow ear canals
  • Have earwax that is overly thick or sticky
  • Have eczema
  • Are dehydrated
  • Have excess hair in the ear canal

What are the signs or symptoms of earwax buildup?

Symptoms of this condition include:

  • Reduced or muffled hearing
  • A feeling of fullness in the ear or feeling that the ear is plugged
  • Fluid coming from the ear
  • Ear pain
  • Ear itch
  • Ringing in the ear
  • Coughing
  • An obvious piece of earwax that can be seen inside the ear canal

How is earwax buildup diagnosed?

This condition may be diagnosed based on your symptoms, your medical history, and an ear exam. During the exam, your healthcare provider will look into your ear with an instrument called an otoscope. You may have tests, including a hearing test.

How is earwax buildup treated?

This condition may be treated by:

  • Using ear drops to soften the earwax.
  • Having the earwax removed by a healthcare provider. The provider may:
    • Flush the ear with water.
    • Use an instrument that has a loop on the end (curette).
    • Use a suction device.
  • Surgery to remove the wax buildup. This may be done in severe cases.

Follow these instructions to relieve ear pain at home:

  • Take over-the-counter and prescription medicines only as instructed by your healthcare provider.
  • Do not put any objects, including cotton swabs, into your ear. You can clean the opening of your ear canal with a washcloth or facial tissue.
  • Follow instructions from your healthcare provider about cleaning your ears. Do not overclean your ears.
  • Drink enough fluid to keep your urine clear or pale yellow. This will help to thin the earwax.
  • Keep all follow-up visits as told by your healthcare provider. If earwax builds up in your ears often or if you use hearing aids, consider seeing your healthcare provider for routine, preventive ear cleanings. Ask your healthcare provider how often you should schedule your cleanings.
  • If you have hearing aids, clean them according to instructions from the manufacturer and your healthcare provider.

When to contact a healthcare provider for ear pain:

  • You have ear pain.
  • You develop a fever.
  • You have blood, pus, or other fluid coming from your ear.
  • You have hearing loss.
  • You have ringing in your ears that does not go away.
  • Your symptoms do not improve with treatment.
  • You feel like the room is spinning (vertigo).

Summary

  • Earwax can build up in the ear and cause discomfort or hearing loss.
  • The most common symptoms of this condition include reduced or muffled hearing and a feeling of fullness in the ear or feeling that the ear is plugged.
  • This condition may be diagnosed based on your symptoms, your medical history, and an ear exam.
  • This condition may be treated by using ear drops to soften the earwax or by having the earwax removed by a healthcare provider.
  • Do not put any objects, including cotton swabs, into your ear. You can clean the opening of your ear canal with a washcloth or facial tissue.

This information is not intended to replace advice given to you by your healthcare provider. Make sure you discuss any questions you have with your healthcare provider.

 

Document Released: 01/25/2006
Document Revised: 11/29/2018
Document Reviewed: 02/28/2018
Elsevier Interactive Patient Education © 2019 Elsevier Inc.

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