It’s important to remember that earwax is an entirely normal and healthy substance produced by our ears. It’s responsible for cleaning, protecting and lubricating our ears, whilst also preventing dust, dirt and bugs from entering our ear canals.
Chewing and movement of the jaw loosens wax at the external ear after it is carried outward by a ‘conveyor belt’ motion of the skin layer; this is how the ear is meant to self-clean and is a process which works well for the majority of the population. Wax naturally migrates out of the ear as it builds and falls out once it reaches the external ear. Clever!
There are, however, some anatomical reasons or lifestyle choices we make which can interrupt this self-cleaning process. When this occurs, you may find yourself experiencing a blocked ear because of built-up ear wax. Our experts have compiled some of the most common reasons blocked ears occur, along with effective remedies and treatments.
Reasons For Blocked Ears
An Australian summer typically goes hand-in-hand with hours spent in the water. Unfortunately, so much time spent splashing about can occasionally bring with it symptoms of the dreaded ‘swimmers ear’. One of the causes of swimmers ear is water becoming trapped behind built-up wax after swimming, leading to ‘otitis externa’ or acute inflammation of the external ear canal1. A trip to the GP will be required for diagnosis and management and initial therapy will likely include topical treatment such as prescription ear drops, keeping the ear dry, and an initial ear clean to allow the drops to better penetrate the ear canal. The ear may be inflamed, sore and itchy as well as blocked.
Sticking things in your ear
Perhaps the most common cause of a blocked ear occurs when built-up wax in the outer ear is pushed deeper into the ear canal through ineffective ear cleaning techniques. This often worsens symptoms and can lead to a complete blockage. The insertion of small objects into the ear canal, whether it’s cotton tips, ear candles, tweezers, or even fingers, can push wax down the canal and even onto the eardrum, causing a feeling of blockage and a dramatic reduction in hearing. Don’t be tempted by the cotton bud! Given the ears are meant to selft clean, the less personal attention the ears are given the better! Allow the ear the perform its self-cleaning mechanism and if the ear does block with wax, try softening drops from the chemist to soften and loosen the wax. If this does not remove the wax or at least create a gap in the wax providing relief from the blocked ear, seek the advice of a professional for manual removal.
Hearing aids or earplugs
If you wear hearing aids or frequently use earphones or earplugs, you might find yourself experiencing blocked ears. Anything inserted into the ear regularly may interrupt the self-cleaning process of the ear and prevent wax from being carried out naturally. Hearing aids are essential for many to hear, as are earplugs to protect our hearing, but educating ourselves about the symptoms of wax build-up will enable us to seek help as symptoms occur and hopefully prevent a blocked ear from occurring.
Unfortunately, some people are simply genetically predisposed to excessive earwax production. In the same way that narrow, bendy or hairy ear canals can cause the wax to build up, what we have inherited from our families is not something we can change! Again, recognising symptoms of wax build-up is key.
Middle ear issues
A recent cold, sinus or even a bout of hay fever can block the eustachian tube; a tube that sits between the back of your nose and the middle ear (behind the eardrum). As a result, the middle ear can become filled with fluid instead of air and even become infected. The ear will feel blocked but you may also feel pain or even develop a temperature; medical assessment is required. Watch the below video to learn more:
Remedies For Blocked Ears
While the internet spruiks various home remedies to treat ears blocked with wax, very few are safe. It is important to try and avoid sticking anything in your ear as this may push wax further down the canal or cause trauma to your ear canal or drum. While the discomfort of a blocked ear can be frustrating, avoid cotton tips, ear candles, ‘twisty’ ear cleaners or anything ‘smaller than your elbow’; your grandparents were right!
Softening drops (or cerumenolytics) are one of the few home remedies Earworx do recommend for easing the discomfort associated with an ear blocked with wax. They both soften and break the wax down and whilst they may not remove the wax in its entirety, they may help to create a gap in the wax and provide some symptom relief. For small amounts of wax the drops may even break the wax down enough to be carried out of the ear via the self-cleaning mechanism. For more severe blockages, softening drops can be used as a preliminary step prior to receiving professional manual removal.
*please note that this method is not suitable for those with grommets or a perforated ear drum – if you are unsure whether or not you’ve sustained damage to your ear drum or whether your eardrum is intact, seek medical advice before using softening drops
If softening drops don’t completely alleviate your blocked ear symptoms, the next step is to consult a professional. In most cases manual removal will be required to treat the wax build up.
Micro-suction is a safe and effective process provided by Earworx clinics across Australia; the largest dedicated professional earwax removal service across the country. Our registered nurses use small instruments and gentle suction to remove wax blockages. Micro-suction is a dry technique and can provide immediate relief from blocked ear symptoms in a completely safe and confidential environment.
If you are seeking gentle and effective remedies for blocked ears, contact our caring Earworx team to find out how we can help.
Rosenfeld et al 2014, Clinical Practice Guideline: Acute Otitis Externa, Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery Vol 150 (IS) SI-S24