Earwax is produced inside your ears to protect the lining of the ear canal, trapping dirt and helping to keep out water. It usually passes out of the ears harmlessly. Sometimes too much can build up and block the ears.
Symptoms of an earwax build-up
A build-up of earwax in your ear can cause:
- hearing loss
- tinnitus (hearing sounds from inside your body)
- itchiness in or around the ear
- vertigo (a spinning sensation)
- ear infections
These problems will usually improve once the excess earwax has been removed.
Treatments to remove earwax
A build-up of earwax is a common problem that can often be treated using eardrops from a pharmacy - ask your pharmacist for advice.
If pharmacy treatment doesn't work, contact your GP surgery (see When to see your GP below). They may suggest having your ears washed out.
There are several different earwax removal treatments available.
The main treatments are:
- eardrops – drops used several times a day for a few days to soften the earwax so that it falls out by itself
- ear irrigation – water is introduced into your ear to wash the earwax out
If these treatments are unsuccessful, your GP may refer you to an Ear, Nose and Throat specialist (ENT) at a hospital. They may use the following:
- microsuction – a quick and painless procedure where a small device is used to suck the earwax out of your ear
- aural toilet – where a thin instrument with a small hoop at one end is used to clean your ear and scrape out the earwax
Not all these treatments are suitable for everyone. Your pharmacist or doctor can let you know what treatments may work for you and they can tell you about any associated risks or side effects.
Causes of an earwax build-up
Some people regularly get blocked ears because they naturally produce a lot of earwax.
Other factors that can increase the risk of too much earwax include:
- producing naturally hard or dry earwax
- having narrow or hairy ear canals (the tube between the opening of the ear and the eardrum)
- being elderly, as earwax becomes drier with age
- bony growths in the outer part of the ear canal
Earwax can also block your ear if you often put objects into your ear canal including:
- cotton buds
- ear plugs
- hearing aids
What to do if you think your ear is blocked
Don't try to remove a build-up of earwax yourself with:
- your fingers
- a cotton bud
- any other object
This can damage your ear and push the wax further down.
If the earwax is only causing minor problems, you can try buying some eardrops from a pharmacy. These can help soften the earwax so that it falls out naturally.
There are several different types of eardrops you can use, including drops containing:
- sodium bicarbonate
- olive oil
- almond oil (not for use by anyone with a nut allergy)
However, eardrops aren't suitable for everyone and some can irritate the skin. For example, eardrops shouldn't be used if you have a perforated eardrum (a hole or tear in your eardrum).
Speak to your pharmacist about the most suitable product for you. Make sure you read the leaflet that comes with it.
When to see your GP
Contact your GP surgery if the symptoms are not getting better or eardrops haven't helped after three to five days.
Your GP or practice nurse will look inside your ears to check if they're blocked. They might carry out some simple hearing tests.
They may suggest using eardrops for a bit longer, or they may carry out ear irrigation (see treatments section above) to clean out your ear canal.
If these treatments aren't suitable or don't help, your GP may refer you to the ENT department of your nearest hospital for more specialised treatments (see treatments section above).
Preventing an earwax build-up
Some people are naturally prone to earwax building up in their ears. This may need frequent treatment to remove it when it becomes a problem.
It's not clear if there's anything you can do to stop earwax blocking your ears. Although some doctors recommend using eardrops regularly to keep your earwax soft.
Speak to your doctor for advice if earwax builds up in your ears regularly.
More useful links
The information on this page has been adapted from original content from the NHS website.
For further information see terms and conditions.