Earwax is a fact of life, and according to The American Academy of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery’s recently-updated guidelines on the matter, it’s one better left alone.
In the first update to its official guidelines since 2008, the academy offers important tips for maintaining ear health, as well as recommendations for patients dealing with impacted earwax, or cerumen impaction.
To make things easier, the academy boiled it all down to a handy list of do’s and don’ts:
DO: Know that earwax (cerumen) is normal. Earwax that does not cause symptoms or block the ear canal should be left alone.
DO: Understand symptoms of earwax impaction (wax blocking the ear): decreased hearing, fullness, ringing in the ear (tinitus), and distortion/changing to hearing aid function.
DO: See your healthcare provider if you have symptoms of hearing loss, ear fullness or ear pain if you are not certain they are from earwax. Other conditions, like fluid behind the eardrum (otitis media), ear canal infection (otitis externa) and sudden inner ear hearing loss can appear like an earwax impaction.
DO: Ask your provider about ways you can treat your earwax impaction at home. You may have certain medical conditions which may make some options unsafe.
DO: Seek medical attention if you have ear pain, drainage, or bleeding. These are not symptoms of earwax impaction, and need to be checked out by your healthcare provider.
DON’T: Over-clean your ears. Too much cleaning may bother your ear canal, cause infection, and may even increase the chances of earwax impaction.
DON’T: Put cotton swabs, hair pins, car keys, toothpicks, or other things in your ear. These can all injure your ear and may cause a cut in your ear canal, poke a hole in your ear drum, or hurt the hearing bones, leading to hearing loss, dizziness, ringing, and other symptoms of ear injury.
DON’T: Use ear candles. Ear candles do not remove earwax and can cause serious damage to the ear canal and drum.
DON’T: Ignore your symptoms if home remedies are not helping. Seek medical attention if your symptoms do not go away.
DON’T: Irrigate or try earwax-removing/softening drops if you’ve had previous ear surgery or a hole in your eardrum unless cleared to do so by your ear, nose, and throat surgeon.
DON’T: Forget to clean your hearing aids as the manufacturer and your hearing health professional recommended.
Dr. Seth Schwartz, chair of the guideline update group, told CBS News that one of the main purposes of the updated, more “patient-friendly” recommendations is to let patients know that earwax isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
“The primary factor is that, really, earwax is a naturally occurring substance that is protective in the ear canal and it doesn’t need cleaning away unless it’s causing symptoms or making it impossible to examine the ear when we need to do that,” Schwartz said. He went on to explain that earwax is the body’s way of keeping debris from getting farther into the ear. It also acts as a natural moisturizer for the ear canal. Old wax usually takes care of itself, and sloughs away over time.
But problems can, and do, pop up. Schwartz says that about one in 10 children, and one in 20 adults, will experience cerumen buildup that leads to a block or a partial block in the ear canal. And when home remedies don’t do the trick, it’s important to consult a doctor.
So unless there’s something serious going on, resist the temptation to stick something in there and let Mother Nature take its course.