Caused by a number of things, impacted earwax happens when there is a build-up of earwax in the ear, which could lead to infection if not 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.
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.
This is actually caused by the hard wax pressing a nerve called 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 it is experienced as 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 a number of 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 are both known to 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
Diagnosing impacted earwax
A hearcare assistant, audiologist or GP will be able to determine whether you have an earwax blockage by looking in your ears with an instrument called an otoscope, which magnifies and lights up the inner ear. Where available in our stores, we will use a video otoscope, so you can see the wax for yourself.
Once they have diagnosed the excessive or impacted earwax, they will advise you on how to prepare the earwax for removal.
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.
Did you know we offer an earwax removal service?
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.
Earwax removal from home
You probably will have heard the saying ‘never stick anything smaller than your elbow in your ear’. Cotton buds, matchsticks, hair pins, pencils and many other items may damage your ear canal, push the wax deeper causing impacted earwax, cause an ear infection, or you might perforate your eardrum.
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.
When you should see your GP
If you experience any of the following, you should see your GP for advice or further treatment:
- Your ear is still blocked after 5 days
- You’re having trouble hearing because of the blockage