Cerumen is the technical term for earwax, and a cerumen impaction refers to an earwax blockage. Over time, a gradually worsening impaction can cause an earache, mild hearing loss, or ringing noises in the ear called tinnitus. Earwax blockages can usually be cleared at home with simple techniques. The ear is a sensitive organ, and a person should take great care not to damage it when trying to remove a cerumen impaction. Persistent ear pain or hearing problems need to be addressed by a doctor.
Glands in the ear canal produce cerumen to help trap dirt, bacteria, and other pathogens. A cerumen impaction can occur if the glands produce an excessive amount of earwax or if the ears are not cleaned out regularly. Some people simply have more cerumen than others, and they are usually aware of their condition due to the feeling of fullness in their ears when wax is not removed.
Most cases of cerumen impaction can be relieved with simple home remedies. Many people try to clean their ears with cotton swabs, though doctors generally advise against the practice as a swab can potentially damage the eardrum or push earwax further into the canal, thereby worsening the impaction. Instead, a person can take steps to soften the earwax and remove it with a soft cloth or tissue.
An eyedropper can be used to place a small amount of mineral oil, olive oil, or diluted hydrogen peroxide into the ear. Softened cerumen is easier to remove manually. If a buildup persists, an individual can try to irrigate the ear canal. After applying softening oils or peroxide, a small amount of warm water can be squirted into the ear while tilting the head. Water and wax are drained when the head is tilted the other way. A cloth can be used to dry the canal after irrigating it.
If home remedies are ineffective or if tinnitus worsens, an individual should visit his or her primary care physician. A doctor can inspect the ear, look for signs of tissue damage, and determine the best way to remove the cerumen impaction. A popular clinical removal technique involves using a specialized suction device to dislodge cerumen and clear the ear canal. A physician may also manipulate small scraping instruments or use an irrigation procedure similar to the one that can be performed at home. If the doctor suspects an infection or a ruptured eardrum, he or she can refer the patient to a specialist for further care.