Earwax (Impacted Cerumen)

Cerumen is the medical term for earwax and is secreted by glands in the ear canal. It can be either soft and yellow (most common in people of European or African ancestry) or gray and dry (most common in people of Asian or Native American ancestry).

Earwax keeps your ear moist and protects from infection. The wax usually makes its way to the opening of the ear, where it falls out or is removed by washing. Wax can build up and block the ear canal causing it to become impacted (firmly lodged in the ear canal).

Patients can be seen by Texas Children's experts in Ear Nose and Throat (Otolaryngology).

Causes & Risk Factors

Some children are more prone to having a lot of wax build-up in the ear.

Causes and risk factors:

  • Narrow ear canals or ear canals that aren't fully formed
  • A lot of hair in the ear canals
  • Bony growths (osetomata) in the outer part of the ear canal
  • Flaky skin near the ear
  • Hard wax
  • A history of earwax blocking the ear canal
  • A habit of sticking objects in the ears
  • Repeated ear infections
  • Using a cotton swab to clean the inside of the ear. The swab usually only pushes the wax further inside the ear.
  • Learning difficulties (the reason for this is unknown)
  • Children with hearing aids 

A blocked (impacted) ear canal increases the risk of infection and hearing loss.

Symptoms & Types

Symptoms include:

  • Itching
  • Pain
  • Hearing Loss
  • Tinnitus (ringing in the ears)
  • Dizziness
  • A sense of fullness in the ear

Diagnosis & Tests

The doctor will use an instrument (otoscope) with a light attached to look into the ear canal.

Treatment & Care

The doctor can use several methods to remove excess earwax:

  • Irrigate the ear canal with water. The doctor squirts a controlled flow of water into the ear canal to clean out the earwax.
  • Use a suction device to remove the earwax as the doctor views the ear through a special type of microscope.
  • Use a small device called a curette. This is a metal instrument with a small ring at one end that the doctor uses to remove the wax.

Living & Managing

Children who experience repeated blockage of the ear canal because of excess earwax are at a higher risk of hearing loss.

Steps you can take to decrease the chance of a blocked ear canal:

  • Talk to your child's doctor about how to clean the ears properly.
  • Do not use a cotton swab to clean the ear. This only pushes the wax further into the ear.
  • Teach your child not to put objects in ears.
  • Eardrops can be used to soften and loosen the earwax, which may help it work its way out naturally.