Ear Wax Impaction: What You Need to Know

Ear wax, called cerumen, is produced naturally as an ear protectant: the wax is both lubricating and antibacterial. Through natural processes, the wax generally dries and sloughs off, eventually falling out of the ear. Sometimes, though, the wax doesn’t fall out but rather gels and hardens in the ear canal. Over time, you may notice some symptoms.

For reasons not always clear, wax builds up excessively in certain individuals. The use of cotton swabs in the ear has been implicated as a cause of wax obstruction by pushing the wax inward rather than facilitating wax removal. The same is true for hearing aids and ear plugs.


– Loss of hearing
– Ear discomfort, fullness, or pain
– Ringing in the ear (aka ‘tinnitus’)
– Dizziness


A simple medical exam with an otoscope (lighted examining ear instrument) will reveal an obstructed canal. The obstruction can be cleared with irrigation using gentle pressure with a syringe filled with warm water. People are often quite surprised when they see the size of the wax ball which can be evacuated! After release, hearing is dramatically improved.
Occasionally, the obstruction is very hard and dry, and requires a few days of ear drops to soften the wax ball before it can be removed. This can be accomplished by using an over-the-counter medication called “debrox” or the wax can be softened with the use of hydrogen peroxide drops.

For some people with recurrent obstruction, ear irrigation will be needed every 6-12 months.