Earwax Removal: Why You Need a Professional Cleaning

By Mara Brooks
Expert Reviewer: Dr. Megan Gerhart Redon

Many people think dealing with excess earwax is something to be done in front of the bathroom mirror, with a cotton swab in hand. But the truth is, this process should be handled by a trained professional.

Excess earwax is definitely problematic: If enough has accumulated to block your ear canal, then the earwax is said to be impacted. Most common among older people and those who wear hearing aids, this problem can cause hearing loss, as sound waves can’t travel deeper into the ear. So, that wax does need to be removed.

Here, HearingTracker takes a closer look at what happens when there’s excess wax inside your ears, and why a healthcare professional should do the cleaning.

Symptoms of impacted earwax

When too much earwax builds up in the ear canal, it can create a blockage and a variety of symptoms. These include the following, which may occur in one or both ears:

  • A feeling of fullness or pain in the ears
  • Tinnitus (ringing in the ears) may become more noticeable
  • Muffled hearing
  • Discharge
  • Odor
  • Itchiness in the ears

The danger of at-home earwax removal

These symptoms of impacted earwax often lead people to try some self-cleaning. But improper attempts—jabbing into the ear canal with a swab or other foreign objects—can push the wax deeper and possibly cause lasting damage to the ear canal or eardrum.

Also, it goes without saying that we cannot see inside our own ears. No amount of peering into the mirror or trying to take a photo with your phone will show you what’s going on inside your ear canal. Even if you could look inside, you aren’t trained to interpret what you are seeing.

To properly diagnose and treat ear issues, a medical professional must be able to look inside the ear canal. Only then can it be determined whether earwax, an infection, or another issue is the culprit.

Why professional earwax removal is best

Now you know why you shouldn’t attempt earwax removal yourself. So what should your next step be if you think you have impacted wax? “The best recommendation is to make an appointment to see your audiologist or physician for an examination,” says audiologist Rebecca Gomer, AuD, an audiologist at Gomer Hearing Center in Richardson, TX. “They will determine how best to remove the cerumen, whether it will be flushed with irrigation or manually removed with specialized tools. Once the canal is healthy, ask about a maintenance program to help with future buildup of wax.”

Earwax Suction Removal

Earwax is removed via professional micro-suction. Image courtesy Vorotek.

In addition to the healthcare professionals mentioned above, many nurse practitioners and physician’s assistants are trained to remove impacted earwax. In some cases (if, say, you have a chronic ear condition), an ear, nose, and throat (ENT) doctor should be involved.

How a professional cleans your ears

Here’s what to expect during earwax removal. To start, these tools will be used to examine and then thoroughly but gently clean your ears.

  • Otoscope - Also known as an auriscope or endoscope, this is the familiar illuminated tool doctors use during check-ups to examine the outer and middle portions of the ear. It can be used to diagnose wax buildup, infection, and other issues.
  • Curette - A curette is a long and thin instrument with a tiny scoop on the end. It is used to remove excessive or impacted earwax from the ear canal.
  • Irrigator - This is a tool that allows liquid to be sent into the ear to soften and flush out earwax. While there are also at-home irrigation kits, these can be dangerous if you have existing damage to the eardrum or an active infection. Medical professionals can perform this procedure with stronger, more precise equipment, and with less risk of complications.
  • Microsuction machine - Microsuction is an alternative technique that involves using a vacuum-powered machine to suck wax out of the ear with a small suction wand. The procedure is often faster that irrigation, and unlike irrigation, microsuction is a dry approach that can be used even in the presence of certain pathological ear conditions, like a ruptured eardrum.

Keeping your ears clean and healthy

By allowing a professional to resolve the problem, you are joining a very large group, as earwax removal is the most common otolaryngologic procedure performed in American primary-care settings, according to Harvard Medical School.

Many patients are recommended to get their ears cleaned every three to six months. Other patients see their physician annually for an ear cleaning. In between appointments, your healthcare professional may advise you to use an over-the-counter method to keep your ears free of excess wax. In that situation, follow directions carefully.

If you think you need an ear cleaning, it is best to seek a professional’s guidance on how to proceed. They will let you know which method is best for you, whether that means routine in-office cleanings or at-home maintenance.