Woman cleaning her ears with swab. Not recommended for cleaning ear wax.

Earwax, also called cerumen, plays a vital role in protecting your ears from filling with dust, bugs, and other debris. Earwax develops only in the outer part of the ear, not near the eardrum, and it usually leaves the body on its own. But earwax can sometimes get impacted near the eardrum and cause infections and hearing loss. This type of blockage is often due to people cleaning their ears improperly with items like cotton swabs that push the wax further in. The American Academy of Otolaryngology Head and Neck Surgery recommends when you should clean your ears and identifies safe ways to clean earwax so that it doesn’t interfere with your hearing or cause other issues. Here are some guidelines.

When Should You Clean Your Ears?

If earwax accumulates to the point that you have symptoms of a blockage, you should clean your ears. This blockage is called cerumen impaction. Symptoms include:

  • Earache or a feeling of fullness or plugging of the ear
  • Ringing or other noises in the ear
  • A bad odor, itching, or discharge from the ear
  • Coughing
  • A partial loss of hearing that may gradually get worse

So what are the best ways to clean your ears when you display these symptoms?

Cleaning With Drops

Home treatments take care of most cases of earwax blockage, just be sure not to resort to cotton swabs or other items that push the wax further in. Drops of mineral oil, baby oil, hydrogen peroxide or glycerin soften the wax so that it then flows out of the ear.

You can apply these drops by soaking a cotton ball and then squeezing it into your ear. Keep your ear pointed up during this process, and let it sit for a minute to let the drops soften the blockage. Tilt your head the other way so that the wax and the drops have an opportunity to drain.

You can also purchase drops at your pharmacy that help break up earwax. These drops have ingredients such as hydrogen peroxide, acetic acid, or sodium bicarbonate. You should follow the same process of tilting your ear up, letting the drops sit, and then tilting your head the other way to clear your ear.

Cleaning With a Bulb Syringe

Ear syringes or irrigation kits are also available at your pharmacy. These kits are often used in conjunction with drops. Use the drops first to soften the earwax, and then wait about 15 to 30 minutes. Use the irrigation kit to then remove any remaining wax that may still be blocking your ear canal.

Do not use irrigation kits if you have diabetes, a hole or tube in your eardrum, eczema or other skin problems in your ear, or if you have a weakened immune system, as water may get into your middle ear and cause an infection. If you are unsure if you have any of these conditions, consult your hearing specialist before irrigating your ears at home.

Cleaning by a Professional

Your hearing health professional has a few advantages that you don’t have when you clean your ears yourself. They get a much better view of the blockage either just by eye or by using a magnification instrument. They also have special instruments that use suction to remove impacted earwax. They may use a special tool called a curette to manually remove the wax.

Do NOT Try Ear Candling

Ear candling involves putting a lit, hollow candle in the ear, with manufacturers claiming that the heat produced causes suction that removes impacted earwax. Candling is so dangerous that the Food and Drug Administration put out a special notice to warm consumers against the practice. They note burns, bleeding, and ear drum punctures as possible outcomes of candling.

If you have any fear at all of removing impacted earwax yourself, don’t hesitate to see a hearing professional. Wax removal is one of the most common services they provide their patients. If you have narrow ear canals or the other problems mentioned above, seeing a professional is the safest way to remove a blockage. You should also discuss earwax removal with your hearing professional if you wear hearing aids, as wax buildup can cause damage.