Our moms told us not to do it. Our doctors agreed. And yet, we still can't keep ourselves from sticking a cotton swab in our ears to clean out excess earwax.
The problem is so worrisome that the American Academy of Otolaryngology—Head and Neck Surgery Foundation felt it was necessary to release updated guidelines on best practices related to the treatment of earwax buildup, also known as cerumen impaction.
Along with treatment recommendations for medical professionals, the foundation offers the rest of us very clear "do's and don'ts" in an effort to prevent damage that can be caused by our misguided attempts to manually clean out earwax.
"Earwax is a natural and protective substance that rarely needs to be removed unless a patient is having symptoms of a blockage," says Dr. Brent Driskill, a board-certified otolaryngologist affiliated with Sharp Community Medical Group.
In fact, our bodies produce earwax to clean and protect our ears from dirt and dust. When small matter makes its way into our ears, the wax "traps" the debris so that it doesn't travel farther into our ear canals. As we chew and talk, the movement of our jaw causes the earwax to move toward the ear's opening so that it can naturally flake off or wash out as a part of regular bathing.
Using cotton swabs or other items to clean out our ears only serves to push the earwax deeper into the ear canal. This can cause far greater problems than a little extra earwax, including an impacted ear canal and permanent damage to the eardrum.
"If earwax builds up to the point of cerumen impaction, symptoms such as hearing loss, earache, ear fullness, itchiness, reflex cough, dizziness and ringing (tinnitus) can occur," says Dr. Driskill. "It is also possible for water to get stuck behind the earwax and develop into infection, especially in the immunocompromised patient, such as patients with diabetes, HIV or those undergoing chemotherapy treatments."
Occasionally, a natural buildup of earwax can occur. However, the new guidelines are adamant about the following:
Dr. Driskill recommends that rather than trying to solve the problem at home by using tools or other dangerous methods, people should seek medical treatment. If indicated, a medical professional can perform a very simple, safe and pain-free procedure to remove impacted earwax.
"There are multiple causes and complications associated with cerumen impaction, and when earwax builds up and causes uncomfortable symptoms, it is time to be evaluated by a doctor," he says. "However, it is not recommended to have earwax removed unless it is causing symptoms."