Wax off, please.
May 9, 2011 10:16 AM   Subscribe

This is the third time in the last ten years that I've ended up with an earwax impaction. What do I do to solve this problem and prevent it from recurring?

Every three or four years I come out of the shower with a terrible case of swimmer's ear. The entire right side of my face goes numb, and it feels as if I've got a cotton ball jammed into my ear and cheek. I lose all sense of equilibrium and feel like I'm underwater.

The last two times this happened, I had to have impacted wax vacuumed out of my ear at the ENT's office. I'd really like to avoid another ear-vacuuming if at all possible.

The first doctor told me to use Debrox regularly. The second doctor told me never to use Debrox. A third doctor actually told me to stop eating mushrooms, claiming that my earwax is an allergic reaction.

I've tried folk remedies ranging from olive oil to hydrogen peroxide. Because my wax tends to be of the wet variety, the olive oil doesn't seem to help, but the hydrogen peroxide does. It's helped so much that I have not had an ear impaction incident since I started rinsing with it every few months.

After the first impaction, I stopped using cotton swabs in my ears, so no need to worry about me jamming Q-tips into my brain. Although I did just stick one in my ear a few minutes ago, hoping against hope that I'd burst the bubble and be able to go about my business today.

What I'm wondering is if there is anything I haven't tried that can help me deal with this waxy buildup on my own. Any and all suggestions are welcome. I will stand on my head for four hours if it will help.

Bonus question: I've recently started using in-ear headphones. Could they have contributed to my current hearing loss/dizziness/numbness/disgusting wax buildup? Should I stop using them forever?
posted by brina to Health & Fitness (21 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: IANAD, but I bet that in-ear headphones could absolutely be contributing to this situation. The good ones that go into your ear canal are essentially the same as Q-tips.
posted by zachlipton at 10:25 AM on May 9, 2011

Best answer: Can't answer about the earbuds, but I have moderate earwax issues, and I find that a cleaning agent (hydrogen peroxide, mostly, if I am reading the label correctly) and a squirt bulb with warm (not hot!) water every few months keeps it under control. I generally rinse both ears in one evening, letting the softener sit in the canal for about 5 minutes, then putting maybe a cup of water into the ear one bulb at a time (I use an old teacup to catch the overflow -- I guess you could just do it in the shower, too).

I repeat the process a day or two later, and that seems to sort it out for about 3 months. The bulbs are not very expensive, and I try to rinse it before and after with hot water, to keep it as clean as possible.

By the way, every so often, I get that swimmer's ear feeling after using the bulb -- it generally goes away after a minute or two (and often just before a largest piece of wax releases -- yuck).
posted by GenjiandProust at 10:27 AM on May 9, 2011

Response by poster: GenjiandProust: I generally find that the hydrogen peroxide solution works quite well, but this particular case of swimmer's ear/waxy impaction has lasted for 24 hours now. Any ideas about how to deal with a one-off ear-mergency?
posted by brina at 10:34 AM on May 9, 2011

Best answer: Any ideas about how to deal with a one-off ear-mergency?

If you go to the doctor or urgent care, they can irrigate your ear for you. That's what I did when this happened to me; they had the wax out in five minutes. Chances are they can sort it out without resorting to suction -- they can get a much better angle with the irrigator than you can at home, and they also have the advantage of being able to see what's going on in there.

I know you said you hate the dreaded ear vacuum, but I do think the doctor is the most practical option here!
posted by vorfeed at 10:46 AM on May 9, 2011

Best answer: There's also a difference between simply having a lot of wax stuck in your ear canal and having an actual infection of the outer ear ("swimmer's ear"). They can be related, but aren't really the same thing. If you have an infection, you might need antibiotic or antifungal drops to clear it out, and simply getting rid of the wax isn't going to solve that particular problem.

Personally, I'd try to find a kick-ass ENT who can try to help you sort this out once and for all.
posted by zachlipton at 10:47 AM on May 9, 2011

I just rinse a little more with the irrigator and it stops on its own after maybe a minute or two. If it's persisting beyond that, I would consider it getting looked at, then try and get into a maintenance routine.
posted by GenjiandProust at 10:52 AM on May 9, 2011

Best answer: While my symptoms were never as bad as yours, I've had to have my ears flushed out by medical professionals before. I use this stuff a couple of times a month to keep build up from being a problem. It has worked great for me.

For the immediate problem, I've used a Murine kit with drops and a bulb and it has worked for me (although it did take a couple of days for the drops to work to the point where everything got cleared out). I don't know if Murine is substantively different than Debrox though.
posted by Kimberly at 11:01 AM on May 9, 2011

Are you using any sort of replacement for Q-tips? I use a tiny ear pick that I got at a Japanese grocery store; it looks like a tiny plastic spoon (although I've seen bamboo models) and you use like a Q-tip, except with more of a scooping motion than a swirling motion.

I switched to this from Q-tips after I had earwax blockage, and it's helped 100%. Good luck!
posted by pluot at 11:17 AM on May 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

I've gone through this same situation. Oh a whim I laid down on my side on the offending ear...after about 15 minutes I think gravity kicked in, heard a pop/whoosh and was fine after that.
posted by Zoyashka at 11:19 AM on May 9, 2011

You may have already tried this, but I find that tilting my head to the side and hopping on one leg often helps get water out of my ears when I've been in the ocean/pool/shower.
posted by Aizkolari at 11:50 AM on May 9, 2011

Best answer: For heaven's sake, never ever stick a q-tip or ear pick or anything else in your ear, ever. My Dad destroyed a substantial amount of his hearing doing this and did so much damage to the inside of his ear that a doctor expressed absolute horror at the sight of it. Dad's response was "don't be stupid, how else am I supposed to clean out my ears?" Everyone else responds the exact same way, too, whenever I interrupt them happily jamming Q-tips or ballpoint pens or other pointy objects towards their most delicate sensory membranes. I can only assume that sticking pointy things into ears has the same addictive properties as smoking, for people do love it so. Nevertheless, do not stick things into your ears. Maybe you could take up putting cigars into your ear canals as a replacement therapy, seeing as how they're thicker.

With that off my chest, I have very narrow ear canals that block up very quickly. I also produce an awful lot of ear wax, possibly because I have very very oily skin and hair and ear wax is approximately the same stuff. I have my ears syringed every two years, on doctor's orders. Often, I get skepticism from new doctors because ear syringing is a bit risky. But it does have to be done or the wax gets impacted. Sometimes the impaction has already started, even after such a short time.

For maintenance, once a month I put Otex (hydrogen peroxide-based) ear drops in for five to ten minutes per ear. That's usually okay.

If you try the ear drops, they might help a bit, but I think if you're getting these symptoms you can't treat it yourself. If it's just water, it might be because the water is trapped behind some wax so you'll only have the problem again. And we don't know if your problem actually is caused by a blockage. So you need to get a professional to look at it. I know this is hard, especially for those in the US, but you really can only do so much self-treatment here.
posted by tel3path at 1:44 PM on May 9, 2011 [2 favorites]

I hope you don't mind a piggyback question: is impacted wax something a family doctor would recognize? Or do you really need an ENT to identify it? (I also have narrow ear canals, and have two clogged ears as I write this. I thought it was fluid related to seasonal allergies, but maybe it's something grosser.)
posted by The corpse in the library at 2:06 PM on May 9, 2011

I hope you don't mind a piggyback question: is impacted wax something a family doctor would recognize?

Yes, a family doctor can handle it (or, at least, mine can).
posted by vorfeed at 2:20 PM on May 9, 2011

Here's a picture of what pluot was referring to:
Ear scraper

There's no size reference but the spoon end is approximately 1.5 mm wide. The whole thing is at most 4" long. They generally come made out of plastic and bamboo. They're cheap enough that you should buy a few and try them out.
posted by just.good.enough at 2:31 PM on May 9, 2011

Please don't do anything like this.

Please print this page and show it to your family doctor when you visit him about your ears.
posted by tel3path at 3:10 PM on May 9, 2011

Response by poster: tel3path, when I visit my doctor, I will tell her about this thread, thanks. By the time I get to this point of having an impaction, it's usually too late for the GP's giant metal syringe, though. I'm going to keep flushing gently tonight, and then if my ear still isn't better by tomorrow, I'll just suck it up and make an appointment with the ear-vacuumer. It is sort of satisfying to look at the big chunks of wax after they come out, so I suppose I at least have that to look forward to.

Thanks everyone, for your suggestions.
posted by brina at 3:20 PM on May 9, 2011

Best answer: I am *not* a doctor, but I have kind of an OCD thing I go through (as in, it works for me pretty consistently, so I just keep doing it, not knowing which part is important and which part is superstition):

Assemble in the bathroom:
- 16 ounce cup
- bottle of hydrogen peroxide
- bottle of rubbing alcohol
- a deep tray to catch the outflow
- squeeze bulb designed for ear irrigation
- an eye dropper (can be purchased cheap separately at drug store)
- a box of tissues

Suck into the eye dropper some alcohol from bottle
Squirt alcohol into sink
Half fill the eye dropper from the peroxide bottle
Squirt into ear, keeping head tilted
Lay on the bed for 10 minutes with two Kleenex
- one for the eye dropper
- one to hold against your ear when you stand back up

After standing up, trash Kleenex into which ear overflow drained
Adjust sink faucet temperature to ***warm*** only
Fill the 16 oz. glass with warm water
Draw some alcohol from the bottle into the squeeze bulb
Squirt alcohol into the sink
Hold tray under ear
Draw warm water into bulb
Tilt head down to one side, squirt, let it drain out into tray
(do *not* put the end of the squeeze bulb in your ear, just aim the stream)
Repeat the squirting and draining.

Use Kleenex to dry outside of ear.
Overdoing it will just cause the ear to inflame and close up,
so if it doesn't work the first day try the next day.
posted by forthright at 7:01 PM on May 9, 2011 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I've had a problem with excessive earwax since I was a kid and have been self-treating what I thought was impacted wax for years (mostly with Debrox drops). I was told by clinics and family doctors that I had excess wax that needed to be irrigated (and/or treated with drops to prevent buildup) OR prescribed antibiotics for supposed middle ear infections. Still, the problem would become bad enough every few years that I would need to visit a clinic or a family doctor. This last bout last year didn't clear up, and after about 9 months of not being able to hear properly, I finally went to an ENT. He told me that I was doing more harm than good by self-treating with OTC drops and having the clinic/family doctor irrigating or prescribing antibiotics... because both had misdiagnosed my problem, which was, actually, fluid in the middle ear. Basically, as much of a pain as going to a specialist (or any doctor, for that matter) is, I would make an appointment with an ENT (especially if your ears haven't cleared up within one week of the beginning of the problem).

[FWIW, I used to be almost obsessed with using Debrox/Murine/drops, but if they don't work within a short period of time, it's less likely that is what your ears need. Don't over medicate or flush out with the bulb at home.. even if people upthread 'swear by it.' Seriously. As a person who used to 'swear by it' herself.]
posted by Mael Oui at 8:50 PM on May 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

All you guys recommending earwax picks should remember that the OP has the wet variant of earwax, not the dry variant. The latter is more common in Asia, hence the prevalence of earpicks in Japan. Wet earwax cannot be removed with these picks, and in general is much harder to remove safely.
posted by Acheman at 9:34 AM on May 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Lose those headphones. I worked at an ol' fashioned answering service for years, complete with pegboards and in-ear and jammed-on-ear headsets. I get my ears "sucked" every 18 months or so. My ENT tells me that my years with the answering service may have affected my wax issues. Here's the thing: I love getting my ears sucked. For HOURS afterward, I am the Bionic Woman and I can hear your hair grow. Nahnahnahnahnahnahnaaah.
posted by Jezebella at 7:25 PM on May 10, 2011

I get that when I have to use the foamy expanding earplugs for work. After the last ear-blasting I got, I went to the drug store and got a BIG squeezy-ball water squirter thing. About softball size, not the little thing that comes in a Debrox kit. I was surprised by how hard the clinic sprayed water in there; I'd always assumed I had to be gentle. Now I give my ears a good long (several second) hard water blast every week or so in the shower and the problem hasn't come back for a while.

Also, I think hydrogen peroxide-based things have a shelf life. If your Debrox has been sitting around for a while, you might try buying a new one.
posted by ctmf at 12:37 AM on May 11, 2011

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