Impacted earwax happens when there is a build-up of earwax in the ear, which could lead to infection if not removed.

Symptoms of impacted earwax

  • Difficulty hearing
  • Sensation of fullness in the ear
  • Itchiness in the ear
  • A ringing sound (tinnitus)
  • Discharge from the ear
  • Dizziness or vertigo 
  • Earache or pain 
  • Coughing

These symptoms should go away once the earwax has been removed.

Causes of impacted earwax

Our ears are very efficient at cleaning themselves. Ironically, it’s usually when people try to clean their ears that impacted earwax is caused. Using things like cotton buds, your finger, or other objects to try and remove earwax can actually push it further into the ear – where it can build up and become impacted. 

It can also be caused by excessive earwax, which can simply happen when your body naturally produces more earwax than it needs, or if it becomes drier or stickier than normal. It’s when this excessive earwax builds up that it can become impacted. 

Other causes of impacted include:

  • Wearing earplugs, earbud headphones and hearing aids 
  • Narrow or hairy ear canals 
  • Age – earwax becomes drier as we age 
  • Exposure to moisture, causing the earwax to expand

How do I know if I have excess earwax?

Hearing loss is the most obvious sign that you may need to have wax removed from your ear. There are a few other slow-growing signs that you can look out for, especially if you have a history of compacted earwax.

Ear pain

Usually resulting purely from pressure on the ear canal, if the wax has been pushed deep into the ear, the pain may come from direct pressure on the eardrum as well.

Cough

This is actually caused by the hard wax pressing on the vagus nerve which runs along the ear. The pressure can excite the nerve and make you cough, despite your throat being clear.

A ‘full’ ear

If the hard wax is pressing equally around the ear canal, then you may feel a sensation of fullness inside the ear. 

Your ears are self-cleaning so you should be fine to just leave them to it. If you feel earwax is causing a problem, get in touch with your GP or Specsavers store to discuss treatment options.

Why do I have too much earwax?

Your ear canal regularly secretes earwax thanks to the sebaceous glands located in your outer ear. The movement of your neck and jaw massage these secretions along the ear canal, picking up debris like dirt and dead skin along the way. Once combined, this is what forms earwax as we know it.

If there is a change in the consistency of secretions from your ear canal, this will naturally cause harder earwax to be formed. This is common as we get older. If there is an increase in the amount of debris in your ear, then this will also have a similar effect. Harder wax moves more slowly along the ear canal, making you more prone to a build-up. 

Medical conditions like eczema, which increase the amount of dead skin in the ear, can also cause excess earwax.

Living or working in a dirty environment, such as construction, may increase the amount of debris mixing with earwax and again lead to blockages. 

There are several other factors that can cause compacted and hard earwax – these are just a few examples that can contribute to it.

Am I at greater risk of excess earwax?

Some people have an increased chance of experiencing earwax issues. This usually stems from an underlying medical problem, such as trauma or disease affecting the ear. 

Bony growths, known as osteomas, and narrow ear canals can restrict the passage of earwax and increase the chances of hardening and blockage. Skin problems such as eczema, or more systemic diseases like lupus, affect both secretion in the ear and the amount of dead skin that needs to be cleared by the body. 

It’s also worth remembering that regularly using things like earphones and hearing aids will naturally push against the wax and can increase the risk of a problematic build-up. 

Earwax is a common problem or many and may only be part of the picture when it comes to any changes to your hearing that you may be experiencing. Finding out if you do have hearing loss is the best first step to take. You can test your hearing quickly using our online hearing test — it only takes three minutes.

You can also visit us in store or give us a call if you’d like to talk about anything to do with your ear health or hearing.

Professional earwax removal treatments

If you have impacted earwax, there’s a greater risk of you developing an ear infection caused by irritation to the sensitive skin inside your ear canal. This can be uncomfortable and may require further treatment – so it’s important that you get your impacted earwax removed safely.

How do you remove badly impacted earwax?

Depending on the extent of your earwax build-up, our audiologists will either remove it manually, with a specialist tool, or use a method called microsuction, which essentially sucks out the earwax build-up without any contact with the eardrum or sensitive skin of the ear canal.

Does it hurt to remove impacted earwax?

Removing impacted earwax is generally a pain-free experience and you won’t need anaesthesia or any pain medication. It might feel a little strange to have someone poking around in your ear, but try your best not to move during the procedure, just to prevent any potential damage to the ear canal caused by a sudden movement. 

Our clinicians will talk you through the procedure before they begin so you’ll be aware of the steps being taken to remove the wax.

Earwax removal from home

You probably will have heard the saying ‘never stick anything smaller than your elbow in your ear’. Cotton buds, matchsticks, hairpins, pencils and many other items may damage your ear canal and push the wax deeper causing impacted earwax, or an ear infection - you might even perforate your eardrum. 

There are, however, plenty of ways you can safely keep your ears clean at home, just check out our earwax do’s and don’ts page to find out more.

If you’re considering buying an over-the-counter solution, we’d recommend you speak to a chemist or pharmacist to make sure you buy the most appropriate product for your needs. 

The National Institute of Clinical Excellence (NICE) advises earwax candling has no benefit in earwax management, can result in serious injury and should never be used. We have plenty more information about ear candling here.

When you should see your GP

If you experience any of the following, you should see your GP for advice or further treatment:

  • Pain
  • Vomiting
  • Discharge
  • Vomiting
  • Your ear is still blocked after five days 
  • You’re having trouble hearing because of the blockage

FAQs

As the symptoms of excess or impacted earwax vary from person to person, we’ve put together a list of our most frequently asked questions:

Can earwax build-up cause headaches?

Yes, but keep in mind that there are many causes behind headaches. The easiest way to find out if it’s cause by earwax build-up is to have any excess wax removed.

Can clogged earwax cause dizziness?

Compacted earwax by itself cannot lead to dizziness. What is more likely is to feel dizziness after attempting to wash out the ear yourself. That’s why it’s always best to see a professional for help.

Can excessive earwax cause ear infections?

As the earwax tries to clear dead skin and debris, it can also trap bacteria inside the ear canal. If left untreated there is potential for an outer ear infection known as otitis externa.

Can earwax cause memory loss?

Earwax is closely linked to hearing loss, and some studies have suggested that hearing loss may be linked to memory loss. This is because the more severe your hearing loss, the more energy your brain has to put into making up for the deficit.

However, it’s important to remember that research here is ongoing and there isn’t a clear answer.

If you are concerned about impacted wax and memory loss you should contact your GP or localSpecsavers store.

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