Earwax is made in the outer ear
canal, the area between the fleshy part of the ear on the outside of the head and
the middle ear. The medical term for earwax is cerumen (seh-ROO-mun).
Earwax has some important jobs. It:
acts as a waterproof lining of the ear canal, protecting it and the eardrum from
germs that can cause infection
traps dirt, dust, and other particles, keeping them from injuring or irritating
The wax makes its way through the outer ear canal to the opening of the ear. Then
it either falls out or comes out during bathing. In most people, the outer ear canal
makes earwax all the time, so the canal always has enough wax in it.
Does Earwax Need to Be Removed?
Usually, there's no need to remove earwax because it comes out by itself. Sticking
anything into a child's ears raises the risk of infection or damage to the ear canal
or eardrum. Cotton swabs are
handy for a variety of grooming needs, but should not be used to remove earwax. In
most cases, regular bathing is enough to keep it at healthy levels.
While some people have more earwax than others, in general the ear makes as much
wax as it needs. Rarely, kids' ears do make too much earwax. And sometimes earwax
can build up and block the ear canal, especially when pushed in by a finger, cotton
swab, or other object. This is called "impaction." If it affects hearing or causes
pain or discomfort, a doctor can remove it.
Parents — and kids — shouldn't attempt to remove
earwax at home, even with remedies that promise to be safe and effective. Doing
so risks damage to the ear canal and, possibly, a child's hearing.
What Can Parents Do?
If your child complains of ear discomfort and you see earwax in the ear, it's OK
to wipe the outside of the ear with a washcloth. But don't use a cotton swab, a finger,
or anything else to poke inside the ear. It could damage the delicate ear canal and
eardrum, or pack the wax in even further.
Check with your doctor before using an over-the-counter earwax removal treatment.
When Should I Call the Doctor?
Call the doctor if your child has:
ear pain, itchiness, or discomfort (like a blocked feeling in the ears)
In infants and toddlers, tugging at the ears can be sign of an ear problem.
Sometimes doctors will remove earwax:
if it's painful, itchy, or uncomfortable
if affects hearing
to get a better view of the eardrum to check for problems
Earwax removal usually is done in the doctor's office. There might be a little
discomfort but it isn't painful. If a child can't sit still or cooperate, the doctor
can remove it in an operating room while the child is under general anesthesia.
Doctors can remove earwax in different ways, including:
scooping it out, pulling it out, or suctioning it out with special instruments
designed for this purpose
flushing it out with warm water. Sometimes a doctor will put drops into the ear
canal to soften the wax and break it down. Or they might ask you to do this at home
and then return to the doctor for wax removal.
Removal takes only a few minutes. If there's a sign of infection, the doctor may
prescribe antibiotic ear drops.
What Else Should I Know?
Ear candling has gained a lot of attention as a home remedy for earwax removal.
But it hasn't been proved to be safe or effective, and can be dangerous.
In ear candling, one end of a cone-type device is inserted into the ear canal and
the other end is set on fire. The idea is that the fire and the cone form a vacuum
and extract the wax. But trying this at home carries a high risk of:
burning the ear canal
punching a hole in the eardrum, which can cause permanent hearing damage
Whenever you have any concerns about your child's ears or hearing, call your doctor.