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Ear problems

Ear wax build up

What ear wax is

Ear wax is a normal, oily substance that helps to protect your ears. It usually comes out of your ears by itself, helped by the movement of your jaw.

It’s good for our ears to have a little bit of wax but it can sometimes build up and cause discomfort or other ear problems.

Ear wax build up can affect anyone, although those who have narrow ear canals or wear hearing aids may be more likely to have frequent ear wax build up.

When you need to remove ear wax

You might need ear wax removing if you have any of the following:

  • hearing loss
  • earache
  • tinnitus
  • itchiness
  • vertigo (a spinning sensation) thought to be caused by a wax blockage.

You may also need ear wax removing if it’s affecting how your hearing aids work, or if it’s blocking your ear canal and stopping a specialist from:

  • examining your ear
  • carrying out hearing tests
  • taking impressions of your ear canal for hearing aid ear moulds.

How ear wax build up can affect your hearing aids

If you wear hearing aids, ear wax can affect how they work. Significant amounts of ear wax can cause hearing aids to ‘whistle’. This will usually stop when the ear wax is removed.

Ear wax can also stop your hearing aids from working properly if it enters the tube or receiver. If this happens, you may have to clean your hearing aids more frequently.

How ear wax build up can cause tinnitus

Some people experience tinnitus if they have a build up of ear wax. This often happens if the wax causes a temporary hearing loss. Once the ear wax is removed, these symptoms will usually go away.

If you are concerned about tinnitus, it’s best to contact your GP.

Read more about tinnitus

What to do if you need ear wax removal

Managing your own ear wax build up

Sometimes it will be necessary to get your ear wax professionally removed. However, often you will be advised to attempt self-management first, or you might just decide to try this first.  

The NHS website recommends using medical grade olive oil ear drops 3-4 times a day for 3-5 days. Wax should then fall out of the ear during the next 2 weeks or so. 

These ear drops can also be used to soften your ear wax prior to professional removal. Follow the advice of your healthcare professional or pharmacist. 

However, there is differing advice out there and we are campaigning to make sure NHS advice is consistent and appropriate. Find out more about our ear wax campaign.

There are some definite things you should not do: 

  • Never insert any objects into your ear. This includes cotton buds, tissue, hair grips etc. We know there are also some products marketed to remove wax but there is no evidence they are safe. In fact, inserting anything in your ear can push wax deeper and damage your ear drum. This can be permanent and very painful.
  • Don’t use ear candles. There’s no evidence to support they’re effective and they can result in serious injury .
  • Don’t continue using ear drops or oil if the problem continues. This could end up making the problem worse, so you should seek professional treatment if you find these are not helping  

There are also some circumstances in which you should not attempt any form of self-management. Seek medical advice first if:  

  • you have sudden or rapid hearing loss  
  • you have significant pain or discharge from your ear(s)  
  • you have a history of perforation of the ear drum  
  • you have had ear surgery  
  • you have had an ear infection within the last 6 weeks.  

NHS ear wax removal 

While olive oil can help relieve some of the symptoms of ear wax build up, some people will still need to have ear wax removed by a professional. 

We recommend visiting your GP to find out more about getting your earwax professionally removed. 

However, we know that many of you have been unable to access this treatment on the NHS and we’re campaigning to change this. 

Find out more about our campaign to ensure clear, safe advice and treatment for ear wax removal is available on the NHS. 

Ear wax removal with private providers 

There are some private and high street providers offering wax removal at a cost. If you do decide to have wax removed this way, ensure the professional you see is suitably qualified and uses a safe method of removal such as microsuction (using a very small suction device to gently remove ear wax).