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What is Impacted Cerumen?

Woman with Hand to Ear

Our bodies naturally produce cerumen, or earwax, to keep the external ear canal free from detritus that might impact on our ability to hear. But sometimes this cleaning mechanism can go wrong and the wax itself becomes impacted. When this happens, it can cause discomfort, a loss of hearing and potential infection, so it’s best to sort the problem out as soon as you notice it.

Why does earwax become impacted?

Normally, earwax is transported down the ear canal by the natural movements of the face and body. Secreted by the ear canal, earwax slowly moves towards the outside of the ear during chewing or speaking and then dries and flakes off when it reaches the outside world. However, this mechanism can fail.

The ear is a self-cleaning and maintaining organism. Things can go wrong, however, when people use earbuds or bobby pins to try to remove what they perceive as excess wax in the ear canal. Usually, swabbing the ear is harmless, but it can push excess earwax up against the eardrum itself, creating a blockage. People with blocked ears can then make the problem worse by continuing to try and extract the obstruction with swabs, compacting it more and making it even more difficult to dislodge.

Hearing aids can also lead to the buildup of earwax in the ear, meaning that those who wear them could be at a higher risk of developing impacted cerumen.

The symptoms of impacted cerumen

Those with impacted cerumen can experience unpleasant symptoms, besides discomfort. These include a difficulty hearing, ringing in the ears, bad odors coming from the ear canal and dizziness. In addition, impacted cerumen is frequently accompanied by discharge coming out of the ear and a feeling of fullness in the ear canal.

Should you see a hearing professional or deal with the problem yourself?

The good news is that many professional health bodies give the go-ahead for people to try to remove compacted ear wax themselves. The Cleveland Clinic, for instance, says that people who suspect that they might have impacted cerumen can put cerumenolytic solutions in the ear to remove the blockage and free up the ear canal. Many solutions will have the desired effect, including baby oil, glycerin and commercially-available peroxide-containing drops. Rinsing the ear in salt water can also help.

After feeding the solution into the ear and the wax dissolves, patients must either irrigate or syringe to remove the blockage.

When Should You See A Professional?

At-home treatments can save you time and effort, but it’s not suitable for all cases of impacted cerumen. If you suspect that the eardrum might be damaged, then seek professional assistance. Medics can use special forceps and spoons to manually remove blockages in cases where the eardrum is perforated or home-based methods cannot remove a blockage.

If you are experiencing significant pain because of a suspected blockage or can feel that your ear canal is swollen, then you should seek medical attention. A swollen ear canal could be a sign of inflammation and infection. In some cases, a prolonged blockage can lead to vertigo – a sensation of always falling – and other complications that become more difficult to treat as time goes on.

Having a medical professional remove impacted earwax might be the safest method, according to researchers writing in the journal, American Family Physician. They point out that because spoons and forceps don’t require the use of liquid, patients are less likely to experience subsequent pain and infection. They do, however, point out that there are no trials, as yet, comparing the safety and efficacy of different procedures.

Finally, it’s worth noting that medical professionals do not recommend some treatments. Currently, the Cleveland Clinic advises against using home-based suction devices because they’re not effective. It also says that people should not use ear candles to melt the wax: not only is it ineffective but can lead to burning of the outer ear and damage the sensitive tissues of the inner ear canal.

How to seek help

Impacted cerumen can lead to quality of life issues, especially for people who regularly use hearing aids. Because hearing aids are a risk factor for the condition, it’s worth paying a visit to your audiologist. At The Center for Audiology, our experts can help assist you in managing impacted cerumen and offer advice to prevent the condition from developing.

Call us to talk about how to avoid this condition and learn how our hearing aid products can help you to live the life you want at (713) 255-0035 for our Houston office or (713) 800-5050 for Pearland.