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The simple answer is – your friend. Although Hearing Healthcare Specialists spend a lot of time trying to ensure wax (technically referred to as “cer-u’-men”) is not blocking your ear canal, it is really there for our protection.

When working as it should, cerumen continues to form in the ear canal as a way to help the ear self-clean. As it forms, it pushes out dirt, then it dries, and with movement of the jaw, eventually falls out of the ear. As it does so, it also lubricates and even disinfects the ear. What a perfect self-sustaining arrangement! However, the problem arises when the wax doesn’t automatically come out. It can even dehydrate and become impacted against the ear drum. That’s when it affects our ability to hear.

So should I use cotton swabs to clean them?

Products like Q-tips are not recommended for cleaning out your ears because of the potential problems for 1) pushing wax further into the canal and impacting it against the ear drum, and 2) potential damage to the sensitive tissue lining the ear canal. If you find that wax chronically collects in your ear canal and is not falling out, there are two routes you can pursue:

1) Home irrigation: You can rinse out your ears with OTC products like Debrox and Murine, that allow you to put a few drops into the canal to soften the wax, then flush it out with warm water. There are also home solutions, such as the one mentioned in this article by the Huffpost Lifestyle.

2) Professional help: Having your ENT or Primary physician remove wax every 6 or 12 months is the safest way to ensure that damage does not occur.

Can I just ignore it?

If it continues to collect – not really. The sensation of full ears, and reduced ability to hear, are all uncomfortable and potentially harmful issues. This type of loss is called Conductive Hearing loss, and is comparable to walking around with your fingers in your ears. If you can imagine walking around in traffic that way, you can see the potential issues to being unaware of your surroundings. Besides that, it pretty much isolates you from conversation. You may be suffering from hearing loss anyway, but why not make sure part of that isn’t due to the buildup of wax?

If I’m not sure – what can I do?

The simple solution is to ensure that you are regularly getting checked by a Hearing Healthcare Specialist that can use a Video Otoscope to look in your ear and determine whether wax buildup has become an issue for you. The better Specialists will actually be able to show you a live picture of your ear canal so that you can see for yourself! To contact one near you, click here.