No one wants big gobs of earwax in their ears, but think twice before digging around with a cotton swab.
Sticking a Q-Tip—or any small object—into your ear can push the earwax back into your ear canal. (Try these clever uses for cotton swabs instead.) As the canal fills up, you could experience some hearing loss, or itching, ringing, and discomfort in your ears, says neurotologist Seth R. Schwartz, MD, MPH, medical director for the Listen for Life Center at Virginia Mason Medical Center. And that wax could be building up more than you realize. “Even half the ear can be plugged with wax before people start to notice at all,” he says.
Your body needs earwax, so don’t poke too far for any that hasn’t made its way outside your ear, says Erich Voigt, MD, clinical associate professor with the otolaryngology department at NYU Langone Medical Center. “The ear canal is a sort of dark, warm, and moist cavity,” he says. “And any areas that are dark, warm, and moist can become an incubator for germs.” The wax prevents water from building up in your ear, keeping germs, mold, and fungus out, he says.
Constantly scraping earwax from your inner ear means removing that protection. “You lose the protective coating,” says Dr. Voigt. “The skin might have tiny scratches, and the germs that like the dark, warm, and moist start multiplying.” You’ll be at higher risk of an outer ear infection—one of the most painful infections you can get, he says. If that happens, try one of these ear infection home remedies.
You already wipe away most of that outside earwax in the shower, says Dr. Voigt. But if earwax is bothering you, a steamy shower also happens to be an ideal place to attack the excess, says Dr. Schwartz. “The wax tends to liquefy because it absorbs water,” he says. “If you wipe your ear, it’s a whitish, soft consistency.” After your shower, wipe the earwax away with a dry washcloth or tissue, he suggests. Anything you can’t reach easily with your finger is still protecting your ear. You could also use eardrops to soften the wax.
See your doctor if wiping wax away at home doesn’t help, or if you think you pushed some back into your ear. A physician can help remove the earwax or identify any other conditions. “Some people think they have earwax but actually have underlying hearing loss,” says Dr. Schwartz.