Ears clogged with earwax are no fun. Many parents can appreciate the earwax-impacted child who constantly asks, “Huh?” In addition, clogged ears can make it difficult for a physician to evaluate a child’s eardrum and can interfere with hearing testing during a well-child check. While normal amounts of earwax are healthy, a clogged ear canal can usually be managed with ease by a primary care provider.
Earwax, or cerumen, is the body’s natural method of cleansing the ear canal of dead skin cells, debris, and dirt. There are two types of earwax: wet and dry. A person’s genes determine the type of earwax that he or she has. Regardless, children tend to have wet earwax compared to adults. Earwax can become compacted when disrupted with Q-tips, fingertips, or other methods of attempted removal. Therefore, the best way to avoid clogging of the ear with wax is not to use small objects as there is a potential of damaging your ear drum. If you are worried that your child may have earwax clogging their ears, have a primary care provider take a look and recommend treatment options.
There are three main approaches to treat excess earwax. A provider may recommend irrigation that removes the wax by rinsing the ear with warm water. This method is usually very effective and painless, but it is not recommended for everyone. Children who have ear tubes (or recent removal of tubes), recent ear infection, or busted ear drum should not get their ears irrigated due to risk of infection. As such, only a professional should perform irrigation of the ear. Another option is curettage, in which the provider physically removes the earwax with a special pick. Because curettage breaks rule No. 1 of ear protection — “don’t place anything smaller than an elbow in your child’s ear”— only a skilled provider should attempt this method. The benefit of this method is that it can be carried out in cases where irrigation is not an option. In addition, it allows the provider to directly see the earwax as it is removed. The final way to remove earwax is to use eardrops to breakdown the earwax. These eardrops, also known as cerumenolytics, can be found over-the-counter. Clinicians may recommend using these drops before an in-office irrigation or curettage. Just like irrigation, eardrops should not be used by everyone. Be sure to consult a provider before using them.
What about home remedies? It turns out, many popular home remedies are ineffective and can be dangerous. For example, the use of candling has not been shown to remove impacted earwax rather than injury to the eardrum or ear canal. Candling can also result in burns. In addition, Q-tips risk perforating the eardrum or simply making the clog worse. Despite its bad rap, earwax serves a purpose and is healthy. If you worry your child has too much, ask a doctor to take a look. And remember, please don’t put anything smaller than an elbow in your child’s ears! That goes for your ears, too.
Dr. Joe Wilbanks is a pediatric resident at Baylor Scott & White McLane Children’s Medical Center.