Why so waxy?
October 7, 2009 8:44 AM   Subscribe

My right ear has been extra waxy for the past few years. Is there something wrong with it? How can I better clean it, since I know I'm not supposed to use Q-tips?

I am a 27 year old caucasian woman. I used Q-tips every day of my life after showering and never had an ear wax problem until five years ago.

I woke up one morning with poor balance and some pain in my right ear. Several people at work had recently had ear infections, so I thought that was my problem. I went to the doctor, and my left ear looked fine, but he couldn't even see into my right ear to see if it was infected because it was plugged with wax. I used wax softening drops for a couple days at home, then went back to the doctor where he used a syringe of water to force out a cylinder of orange/brown wax about the size of a new pencil eraser. My ear felt awesome after that, and no, it was not infected.

The doctor recommended against using Q-tips at all, because he said they were forcing wax back into my ears, so I stopped using them for a few months. Eventually, my ear started feeling kind of sticky and waxy, so I started (and continue) to use them just a couple times a week.

Ever since that day, my right ear has produced much more, darker-colored wax than it ever had. Sometimes - but not every time - when I clean my right ear I'll pull out chunks of sticky, orange or brownish wax. I never experienced anything like this before my ear was "unplugged" five years ago. My left ear doesn’t produce this amount of wax.

Is this just a normal change in life that happened to coincide with my medical ear cleaning? Or was something done that day that's caused me to produce more wax ever since? Is there anything I can do to reduce the amount of wax my ears produce, or a better way to clean it out besides an occasional Q-tipping? (I've tried drops and a bulb of water, but haven't had good results.)

By the way, I've had doctors look in my ears since then, and nobody's commented on excessive wax or blockage.

Side note that is probably relevant: I vaguely remember my father, with whom I have no contact (and do not wish to), had ear wax issues as well. He was hard of hearing, due in part to a build-up of wax, and periodically went to the doctor to have his ears vacuumed with a small tube (I went with him once when I was very young). Is excessive ear wax hereditary?
posted by anonymous to Health & Fitness (25 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
You can do the flush thing yourself at home with a squeeze bottle (those small ones they sell at pharmacies) and a solution of hydrogen peroxide 50-50 with warm water. Once a week will do you no harm.
posted by OHenryPacey at 8:51 AM on October 7, 2009

I'm a fan of the Ototek Loop for getting rid of ear crud. It's quite satisfying to use.
posted by zsazsa at 8:51 AM on October 7, 2009 [3 favorites]

I fear ear wax may be an old man thing, as I've noticed it as I become older. The peroxide with an ear flush works really well, and is pretty gentle on your ears.
posted by xingcat at 8:55 AM on October 7, 2009

Before going to bed, put a few drops of olive oil in the affected ear, then lie on your side for a while so that it doesn't run out immediately. In the morning: earwax gone. (And I never even found any trace of it, or the oil, on my pillow.)
posted by game warden to the events rhino at 9:05 AM on October 7, 2009 [1 favorite]

My ears were pretty well blocked up, but mineral oil and a water rinse worked quite satisfactorily.
posted by elder18 at 9:11 AM on October 7, 2009

A couple of things:
The inner ear canal environment normally produces wax, which catches and slowly removes dirt and dust from your ear.
Removing the wax manually and too often will irritate, make the process overcompensate, and produce thinner and faster flowing wax.
Bottom line, better to not mess with nature too much.
My ENT doc says clean about every six months, if necessary.
posted by artdrectr at 9:28 AM on October 7, 2009

As a guy around the same age with a similar problem: never never never never NEVER use Q-tips inside your ear canal. Not only can you damage your inner ear, but the Q-Tip will impact the ear wax and clump it closer together, forming a wax "ear plug" that will be impossible to remove on your own.

There's really no need to clean out your ear wax on a regular basis. I go every 12-18 months to an ear/nose/throat clinic where they clean out the wax with a high-powered water jet -- takes about 3 seconds per ear. Believe it or not, the big ENT clinics have "Ear Wash Rooms" specifically for this purpose. The advice I've gotten from ENT doctors is to leave it alone and only clean it out if it becomes a problem (ie. if I cannot hear out of one ear - yes it gets that bad!).
posted by hamsterdam at 9:50 AM on October 7, 2009

I once had my whole ear canal plugged with more wax than I thought could possibly fit in there. It was from years of swimming and using my fingers to try to get the water out of my ears. I was unwittingly created a massive horrible plug of wax that was soon to have the area behind it infected.

Basic advice from the doc (paraphrased):
Don't put things in your ears. Ear wax is normal. Until it starts seeping out of your head, you're alright. The body will self regulate.

If you keep things out of your ears for a month or so and still think there's a problem, then go see a doctor, maybe they can advise you further.
posted by battlebison at 9:58 AM on October 7, 2009

I'm a current hearing aid wearer and former Hearing Instrument Specialist(HIS). I've had experience in dealing with my own and hundreds of patients in the past and have consulted with ENTs, DOs and other doctor's on many occasions.

STOP with the Q-tips already.

Yes, it feels somewhat satisfying because you're scratching/rubbing in the canal and that produces a pleasant sensation for most, but your own doctor told you it was likely impacting and pushing back the wax in your ear.

There are several methods for loosening and softening the current wax in your ear. There are also tools that help to scrape or drag the wax out. The rinses and such are recommended for mild cases, but the tools are only recommended for moderate to severe cases when performed by someone qualified, ideally with a video otoscope so that not only can the doctor see what they are removing, but you can see a little more of what's going on inside there.

Parental history may be a factor here, as well as your normal aging process. As has already been pointed out, earwax is a GOOD thing and should be left alone to do it's job. At some point (and possibly with frequency) you have Q-tipped up a clump of ear wax that dried up and caused irritation. Very likely you impacted more wax once that initial clump started to irritate you and once it is a certain size, it won't generally move out on it's own without some type of assistance (see above)

Added to the impacted wax, as a male, you laos have hair in and around your ears and ear canal. These hairs also get pushed into the canal in some cases (Qtips!) or are hairs growing IN the ear canal which normally help with the movement of wax out, but will fall out when agitated too frequently (QTips!) if they get caught up in the ear wax and get impacted or stuck it often makes it even harder for the natural removal action to occur.

Did you notice that most of the problems, while not always CAUSED by Qtips, are usually aggravated by them?

It bears repeating:
STOP with the Q-tips already.

Go see an ENT to clear your ear (hopefully on video otoscope) and take a look to see if you have excessive hair in your ear canal or unusual bends that may case irregular buildup of earwax and discuss your options. After that, don't stick anything in your ear (Qtips, pencils, car keys, etc) for that scratch. All you need to assist the usual process is a washcloth and a fingertip, nothing smaller than that should be going into your ear canal.

You can use some type of loosening solution periodically if you are anal about cleaner ears, but again, STOP with the Q-tips already.


The above advice is great for anyone who does not wear hearing aids (ie. normal people) hearing aid wearers need to understand that the hearing aid or mold is a FOREIGN OBJECT and always will be considered that way by your body. As such, you may get more irritation from the hairs in your ear canal and more frequent activity in your ear (removing and putting on hearing aids) so you may get more wax than average. It's up to you to keep your mold/aid clean and follow the cleaning advice above and see your doctor or hearing specialist 2 times a year to get your ears checked and discuss any problems with your doctor.

Good luck!
posted by emjay at 10:01 AM on October 7, 2009

Ummm this has happened to a "guy I know." Some people just make a lot of earwax. The only answer I know of is to use the drops (Debrox or whatever the drugstore sells) on a regular, preventive basis.
posted by drjimmy11 at 10:11 AM on October 7, 2009

Hey everyone?

I am a 27 year old caucasian woman.

Followed by

I fear ear wax may be an old man thing...
Added to the impacted wax, as a male, you laos [sic] have hair in and around your ears and ear canal....

Y'all are goofy.
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 10:32 AM on October 7, 2009 [1 favorite]

I have occasional spurts of excess wax production. I've never really figured out why or how or anything else, but it happens sometimes...and for added fun it switches ears. Nothing I have ever done or have been told has ever decreased the wax production. Seems to be something I need to deal with on occasion.

I've observed the darker colored was comes from deeper inside the ear. Not sure whether it is true or not, but in an odd way I know I have most of the wax out of my ears when I get to that level of wax.

Best advice I had from a doctor was actually to take a waterpick, cut off the plastic tip so you have a larger bore tube to push the water through, put it on the really-freaking low setting, fill the tank with warm water, and use it to gently wash your ears out (with the 50:50 peroxide:water or something like a over-the-counter wax loosening agent) every few months.
posted by rand at 11:54 AM on October 7, 2009

This (the "Ear Clear") works well for flushing out your ears in the shower.
posted by Addlepated at 12:22 PM on October 7, 2009


The doctor injects a few quarts into your ear canal.

Did you say quarts!?
posted by Cogito at 1:08 PM on October 7, 2009

whatever you do, don't put olive oil in your ear as someone suggested.
posted by bunny hugger at 2:27 PM on October 7, 2009

And never put salt in your eyes.
posted by Cogito at 2:52 PM on October 7, 2009 [1 favorite]

whatever you do, don't put olive oil in your ear as someone suggested.

Why not? Olive oil has long been used to help clean ear wax and is even recommended by the American Hearing Research Foundation.

Do you have a reason why someone shouldn't use olive oil?
posted by turaho at 2:57 PM on October 7, 2009

Just another data point here: female, 28 years old, always had the wax issue since I can remember. ENT doctors have always told me not to try anything by myself, just go to the clinic once in a while (I usually go once every two years) and have it cleaned. My current doctor says my build-up is due to the fact that my ear canals are a bit 'bent' or tortuous or something like that, so the wax excess accumulates inside.

Do go to a doctor that does this very carefully, though! I once left a clinic crying (as in "this is one of the two times in my life I cried because of physical pain"). But, when it is done right, it does not hurt at all - tickles at most - is quite a relief to be able to hear again!
posted by natalinha at 3:04 PM on October 7, 2009

whatever you do, don't put olive oil in your ear as someone suggested.

That was me. It was a doctor's advice to me, and is recommended by the UK National Health Service and is the most popular first choice for treating earwax among UK general practitioners and practice nurses. But hey, feel free to dismiss it with no evidence.
posted by game warden to the events rhino at 3:31 PM on October 7, 2009

Is it hereditary? Probably.
posted by chairface at 4:49 PM on October 7, 2009

Every few weeks, put a few drops of mineral oil in the ear, put in a cotton ball and go to bed. Remove in the morning.

This was the advice given to me a couple of weeks ago after having yet another giant chunk of wax pulled out of my ear. Incidentally, before going in to have the wax removed, I tried to get it out myself by softening with olive oil. I couldn't get it out, but the nurse did comment that the wax did seem much softer than it should have, so that may have had something to do with it . . .

No q-tips, tho. Not ever.
posted by ainsley at 8:18 PM on October 7, 2009

Woman here too, thirty years old. Just to second that it's not an old man thing. ;) Mine have been okay the last few years, to my great happiness, but I had the same problem for a few years in my mid-twenties. Each time the docs would syringe them (shoot warm water in to dislodge it). I don't know what else we could've done but I suspect also that doing this, whilst necessary (I was usually quite unable to hear in the offending by the time I sought assistance with it), also caused it to come back doubly bad, in overcompensation. I had it done once a year for a couple of years, and then even had to go in six months later once or twice. It started building up again a final time when I was overseas; without access to medical care I just let them be and hoped for the best; the problem went away and since then I haven't had the same issue. Coincidence maybe; but when wax's raison d'etre is ear protection, it seems logical enough that ears should overproduce when stripped ruthlessly of their defence mechanisms like that.

I don't know about heredity. According to the doctors/nurses my problem was that my ear canals are very narrow, and one bends at a weird angle. It may also be relevant that I was listening to a lot of music via headphones at the time. (One nurse told me it's not unusual to experience extra waxiness the day after a loud concert because your ears are working especially hard to protect themselves; with headphones I was subjecting them to the same thing a lot more frequently.)

My move in your position would be, as others advise, to stop troubling them and let them be. Letting water trickle in them in the shower was advised to me by a nurse as a way of ensuring they don't get blocked; also you can get drops that you put in before going to bed every so often, that soften it (though these are oily and kinda gross). Do these things to avoid plugs developing, if you're worried about that; then, that achieved, let 'em be as much as you can--see if they settle down that way.
posted by springbound at 6:36 AM on October 8, 2009

("in the offending ear" that should read, early in the first paragraph.)
posted by springbound at 6:37 AM on October 8, 2009

Okay - this might sound weird, but are you a vegetarian? I am, and had very similar problems to yours. I mentioned to another veggie friend - same issue. He started taking fish oil capsules regularly and it worked (I think his Doctor gave him this advice, but I'm not sure). I tried it and it DEFINITELY helped. Anecdotal, of course, but there you go.
posted by bienbiensuper at 4:34 PM on October 8, 2009

Oh hrm - yes, after some googling, it looks like a deficiency in Omega 3 Fatty Acids can cause weird ear wax issues.

Something to look into...
posted by bienbiensuper at 4:38 PM on October 8, 2009

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