Wednesday’s Ask Dr. Walt — Give an Ear to Ear Wax Advice

Dear Dr. Walt,

How do I prevent (or treat) the problem of ear wax building up and keep my ears clean?

— Earful in Ohio

Dear Waxy,

Do not mistake a “clean ear” for a wax-free ear. Your ear is designed by our Creator to have some wax in it naturally, which is meant to stop dust and other small foreign bodies from entering your ear. The wax inside the ear is slowly transported out by the tiny hairs in your outer ear canal. It’s an amazing design.

Keeping your ears “clean” only needs to involve cleaning the outerportion of your ear canals. You should never stick a cotton swab in your ear to remove earwax. Doing so doesn’t really remove the wax—all it does is compact the wax closer to your eardrum.

More than half of the people who visit ear, nose, and throat (ENT) specialists confess to using swabs—tiny sticks with cotton on the ends—to clean their ears, but the practice can damage the ear if people push them in too far.

Studies have found a direct association between using cotton swabs to clean the ears and ruptured eardrums. As one of my ENT professors used to teach us, “Don’t stick anything in your ear smaller than your elbow!”

If you feel you have a buildup of wax in your ear, you may try to soften the wax and wash it out. It can be done a couple of ways. One is to place a few drops of mineral oil, baby oil, or glycerin in your ear. Use a small cotton ball in the outer ear to hold it in and let it soak in overnight and then clean your ears in the morning.

If this doesn’t work, you can look for one of the inexpensive commercial (Debrox or Cerumenex) ear wax removal kits. These commercial products contain and ear wax softener and a small bulb for washing out your ears with warm water (not cold water, which can stimulate dizziness or nausea). 

Some older doctors swear by a liquid stool softener—docusate sodium (DSS or Colace). One study found that it is more effective to use Colace rather than Cerumenex as a wax softener before irrigating the ear. In this study the researchers instilled 1 mL of docusate sodium fifteen minutes before irrigation and found it worked 81 percent of the time.

If these home efforts don’t work, then see your family physician for an evaluation.

One added caution: the Internet is infested with ads about ear candles. Ear candling is a technique that involves placing a hollow, cone-shaped candle into the ear canal and then lighting the end sticking out of the ear.

Mayo Clinic warns: “Research shows that ear candling is ineffective at removing earwax and is also not an effective treatment for any other conditions. In fact, the technique can actually push earwax deeper into the ear canal.” 

Not only that, using an ear candle can lead to deposits of candle wax in the ear canal, burns to the face, hair, scalp, ear canal, eardrum, and middle ear, and puncture of the eardrum. I won’t spend a lot of time waxing poetic about it, but not only do ear candles not work, they are potentially dangerous.

© Copyright WLL, INC. 2019. This blog provides a wide variety of general health information only and is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment from your regular physician. If you are concerned about your health, take what you learn from this blog and meet with your personal doctor to discuss your concerns.
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