How can I tell if my ear is blocked with wax?

Having a blocked ear due to excess wax buildup is a common problem that many people experience. The medical term for this condition is cerumen impaction. Wax in the ear canal is normal and helps protect and lubricate the ear. However, too much earwax can cause hearing loss, ear pain, ringing in the ear (tinnitus), dizziness, and more. Knowing the signs and symptoms of a blocked ear canal can help you determine if you have excess earwax and need medical treatment.

What are the symptoms of a blocked ear canal?

Here are some of the most common symptoms that indicate you may have excess earwax buildup:

  • Feeling like your ear is plugged or clogged
  • Partial hearing loss, like sounds are muffled or dampened
  • Ear pain or discomfort
  • Tinnitus or ringing in the ear
  • Dizziness or balance problems
  • Itchiness in the ear
  • Coughing
  • Ear infections that keep recurring
  • A feeling of fullness or pressure in the ear

If you are experiencing any of these symptoms, especially muffled hearing and a clogged sensation, it’s likely you have excess earwax blocking your ear canal. The severity of symptoms often depends on the amount of blockage. The more obstructed your ear canal is, the worse your symptoms will be.

What causes ear canal blockages?

There are a few different factors that can cause or contribute to an accumulation of earwax deep in the ear canal:

  • Overproduction of earwax – Some people simply produce more wax than others naturally
  • Narrow or bent ear canals – A abnormal shape or size of the ear canal can allow wax to become trapped
  • Excessive use of cotton swabs – This pushes wax deeper into the ear canal
  • Older age – Earwax becomes drier and more compacted as we age
  • Hairy ear canals – Excess hair in the canal catches and holds onto wax
  • Dry skin conditions – Conditions like eczema or psoriasis can cause dry, flaky skin that blocks wax
  • Ear injury or trauma – Damage to the canal or ear drum can affect wax buildup
  • Hearing aids or ear plugs – These devices interfere with the ear’s natural self-cleaning process

In most cases, a buildup occurs gradually over weeks or months as wax slowly accumulates in the ear. The blockage tends to worsen over time if left untreated. Contact your doctor if you think you have any underlying conditions leading to excessive wax.

How do doctors check for and diagnose blocked ears?

Doctors have a few different methods they can use to diagnose a wax blockage:

  • Otoscopy – Your physician will look inside your ears using a tool called an otoscope. This allows them to visually see if there is excess wax.
  • Cerumen removal – A doctor may use a small curette, suction, or ear irrigation to gently remove some wax. Clearing some blockage to improve hearing tests whether a significant blockage is present.
  • Hearing tests – Audiometric testing assesses your hearing sensitivity. Blocked ears often cause mild-moderate conductive hearing loss.
  • Patient history – Your doctor will ask about symptoms and risk factors like cotton swab use.
  • Physical exam – Checking your ear canal and eardrum for signs of inflammation or infection.

Based on a combination of these diagnostic tests, your doctor will determine if a wax impaction is the cause of your symptoms. They can then recommend the most appropriate and effective treatment options.

How can I safely remove earwax at home?

You can try these methods to safely and effectively remove excess earwax at home:

  • Use over-the-counter wax softening drops – These can help loosen wax so it can drain out on its own. Apply as directed for several days.
  • Try an at-home ear wash system – Brands like Debrox allow you to irrigate your ears. Use the provided tips and solution.
  • Gently flush ears with warm water – Use a rubber bulb syringe or ear syringe to direct a stream of lukewarm water into your ear canal.
  • Have a doctor or nurse remove it manually – Never attempt using tweezers, hairpins, keys, etc. This risks damaging your ears.

Never place cotton swabs, candles, or any objects into your ear canal to try removing wax. This is very dangerous and can result in injuries. Avoid ear candling which has no scientific evidence of being effective. See a doctor if at-home remedies do not relieve your symptoms. They can safely remove stubborn wax using microsuction or irrigation in the office.

Ear wax removal drops

Ear wax removal drops, also called cerumenolytic drops, work by softening and breaking up the wax so it can drain out of the ear canal more easily. Here are some tips for using removal drops effectively:

  • Choose an over-the-counter brand containing carbamide peroxide or glycerin which are proven ingredients.
  • Always follow the product instructions carefully.
  • Warm the drops to body temperature before use so they’re comfortable.
  • Tilt your head and pull the outer ear up and out to straighten your ear canal.
  • Use the dropper to instill the drops into the affected ear.
  • Keep your head tilted for several minutes so the drops can soak into the wax.
  • Use 3-4 drops 2-3 times per day for up to 4 days until wax softens.
  • Let the wax drain out on its own. Do NOT attempt to remove it with an object.

Stop use and see your doctor if symptoms worsen or don’t improve after several days of drops. Discontinue use if you experience skin irritation or rash.

At-home ear irrigation

Ear irrigation kits like Debrox allow you to safely flush your ear at home with a gentle stream of warm water. Here are some tips for proper technique:

  • Fill the reservoir with lukewarm water. Check that it’s a comfortable temperature.
  • Add the irrigation solution as directed on the packaging.
  • Position the tip at the opening of the ear canal. Tip your head over the sink.
  • Gently squeezing the bottle, direct the water into your ear canal. Avoid forceful spraying.
  • Let the water and loosened wax drain out. Repeat until water runs clear.
  • Be patient and gentle. Never irrigate ears if you have tubes or a perforated eardrum.

Stop irrigation if you experience pain or dizziness. After, keep your ears dry and do NOT attempt to dig out any remaining wax. Allow the ear to drain naturally over a day or two.

When should I see a doctor for blocked ears?

You should make an appointment with your doctor, ENT, or audiologist if:

  • You have symptoms of blockage but at-home remedies provide no relief after several days.
  • You experience sudden, severe hearing loss or pain.
  • Home irrigation or removal methods worsen symptoms or push wax deeper.
  • You have a suspected foreign object lodged in the ear canal.
  • Your ear is oozing fluid or blood.
  • Hearing loss, pain, or other symptoms persist after wax removal.
  • You require frequent ear wax removal visits.
  • You have a history of ear surgery, injury, or ear drum perforation.

Seeking professional care can ensure complete wax removal and prevent complications. Your doctor has specialized tools and training for safe and effective blockage relief.

How do doctors remove impacted earwax?

Doctors have access to more advanced methods and tools for ear wax removal, including:

  • Microsuction – Uses a small vacuum device to suction out wax under a microscope.
  • Ear irrigation – Flushing the ear with warm water using a specialized irrigating device.
  • Manual removal – Your doctor may use a small cerumen spoon or curette.
  • Ear probes – Thin probing tools can help dislodge hardened wax.

The safest, most effective method depends on factors like the amount of blockage, your symptoms, the shape of your ear canal, and more. Discuss the options during your appointment. Typically the wax removal itself takes less than 30 minutes and is not painful, but may feel unusual.

Ear irrigation by a doctor

Ear irrigation done in a doctor’s office is a safe, effective way to flush out excess wax. It involves:

  • Numbing ear drops – For comfort, your doctor may instill numbing drops before irrigation.
  • Warm water – A irrigating device gently directs water into the ear.
  • Suction – A suction device removes debris and water.
  • Several rounds – The process is repeated until the water runs clear.

Advantages of professional ear irrigation include more powerful flushing, sterile water and conditions, suction to remove debris, and magnified visualization of the ear canal. Notify your doctor if you have a perforated eardrum before this procedure.

Microsuction ear wax removal

Microsuction uses a special suctioning device under magnification to vacuum earwax out of the canal. Benefits include:

  • Fast, efficient, and comfortable
  • No water or irrigation required
  • Performed under direct visualization
  • Low risk of ear injury or pushing wax deeper
  • Safe for perforated eardrums

The doctor inserts a small microsuction tip into the ear canal. Manual suction is applied while the tip is moved along the canal. This method provides gentle but powerful wax removal. Notify your doctor if you have a perforated eardrum.

Tips for preventing earwax buildup

Here are some tips to prevent excess earwax from accumulating and blocking your ears:

  • Never insert objects like cotton swabs, bobby pins, or tissues into your ears. This risks damage.
  • Avoid or limit use of earplugs which interfere with natural wax expulsion.
  • Apply 1-2 drops of mineral oil or glycerin before bed to lubricate wax.
  • Regularly flush ears with warm water to remove wax and debris.
  • Get ears flushed by your doctor on occasion if you are prone to buildup.
  • Avoid sticking cotton swabs or fingers in your ears.
  • Change your ears buds and headphones regularly.
  • Use humidifiers during dry weather to prevent dry, compacted wax.
  • Don’t attempt digging out the wax yourself. Seek professional removal instead.

What happens if earwax buildup is left untreated?

Leaving an earwax blockage untreated can lead to complications including:

  • Worsening hearing loss – Wax pushes on the eardrum lowering hearing ability.
  • Infections – Trapped wax causes moisture and bacteria buildup.
  • Tinnitus – Pressure on the ear drum can cause ringing or buzzing sounds.
  • Dizziness and balance problems.
  • Ear drum damage or perforation.
  • Coughing or gagging as wax touches the eustachian tubes.
  • Social isolation from untreated hearing loss.

In rare cases, a wax obstruction left too long can cause permanent hearing damage, severe infections, or problems with balance and coordination. Seek medical advice if you think your symptoms indicate a significant wax blockage.

Frequently Asked Questions

How much earwax buildup is normal?

Most people produce between 0.5 to 2 grams of earwax per month on average. Some wax in the ear canal up to the eardrum is normal. Seek medical advice if you feel significant blockage, deafness, pain, discharge, or other concerning symptoms.

Why does my earwax smell bad?

Earwax itself does not have much odor. However, trapped moisture, bacteria, and dead skin cells in a blocked ear canal can produce a foul smell. See your doctor if your ear wax smells unusual or offensive.

Can I use ear candles to remove wax?

No, ear candling is not recommended. This practice carries serious risks of burning the face, ear, and ear drum. There is no scientific evidence it effectively removes wax. Safer options include ear drops, irrigation, or professional microsuction.

Does earwax cause hearing loss?

Yes, excess earwax can temporarily cause hearing loss. Wax presses on the eardrum and interferes with its vibration in response to soundwaves. Removing impacted wax typically restores hearing to normal.

Can children get blocked ears from wax?

Yes, earwax blockages can occur in children as young as infants. Large wax plugs are especially common in kids with congenital ear malformations or genetic conditions. Seek medical care to safely remove wax and prevent complications.


Earwax blockages are a common problem that can temporarily cause hearing loss and discomfort. Key symptoms include clogged ears, muffled sounds, ear pain, ringing, and dizziness. At-home treatments like softening drops and irrigation can help remove excess buildup. See your doctor promptly if over-the-counter remedies are ineffective for relief. They can safely and completely remove stubborn wax using microsuction, irrigation, and manual extraction methods.

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