Will Impacted Ear Wax Fix Itself?

Reviewed on 10/28/2020

What Is Impacted Ear Wax?

Ear wax (cerumen) is a protective covering in the ear canal that helps protect the skin of the external ear canal from water damage, infection, trauma, and foreign bodies. Impacted ear wax is when ear wax accumulates enough to cause symptoms. 

Impacted ear wax is more common in young children and older adults.

What Are Symptoms of Impacted Ear Wax?

Impacted ear wax usually doesn’t cause problems, but may cause bothersome symptoms in one or both ears, such as:

More serious symptoms may be a sign of infection. See a doctor if you experience any of the following: 

  • Severe pain 
  • Fever
  • Drainage from the ear canal 
  • Odor from the ear 
  • Itching 
  • Sudden hearing loss
  • Spinning sensation (vertigo)
  • Loss of balance, or inability to walk 
  • Persistent vomiting

What Causes Impacted Ear Wax?

Causes of ear wax impaction include:

  • Diseases that affect the ear such as skin problems that cause excess skin cell shedding, including eczema
  • Narrow ear canal 
    • Can occur from birth
    • May become narrower after an ear injury
    • May narrow following severe or multiple ear infections
  • Changes in ear wax and lining due to aging: ear wax becomes harder and thicker as people age
  • Improper ear-cleaning habits: use of cotton swabs (Q-Tips) or other tools can actually push ear wax deeper into the ear canal instead of removing it
  • Production of too much ear wax 
    • Occurs in some people naturally
    • Can occur if water is trapped in the ear
    • May be due to ear injury
  • Bony blockage (osteoma or exostoses) 
  • Infection, such as swimmer’s ear (external otitis) 
  • Autoimmune disease such as lupus

How Is Impacted Ear Wax Diagnosed?

Impacted ear wax is diagnosed with a physical exam in which a doctor uses an otoscope (an instrument with a light and magnifier used to look inside the ear). 

Hearing tests may also be indicated.

What Is the Treatment for Impacted Ear Wax?

For impacted ear wax that causes no symptoms, treatment is not always needed. Ear wax may go away on its own over time. 

If you have symptoms of impacted earwax, treatment includes: 

  • Ear drops
  • Rinsing (done by a medical professional)
  • Special tools used by a medical professional to remove ear wax including small sticks, hooks, and spoons and tools that use suction to pull the wax out

Do NOT: 

  • Clean your ears yourself using a cotton swab (Q-tip)
    • This can push wax deeper into the ears and cause impaction or make it worse
  • Use “ear candling,” which involves lighting one end of a hollow candle and putting the other end in the ear
    • This method does not work and can cause ear injury and burns

What Are Complications of Impacted Ear Wax?

Impacted ear wax does not usually cause complications, but in rare cases, treatments for ear wax removal can cause complications such as: 

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Reviewed on 10/28/2020
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