The reason behind hearing loss has a lot to do with whether or not the hearing loss is permanent or can be reversed. One simple solution that is sometimes overlooked is excess buildup of wax that causes blockage in the ear canal. Wax blockage is an obstruction of the ear canal with wax, also called cerumen. The ear canal is lined with hair follicles and glands that produce a waxy oil called cerumen.

Ear wax protects the ear by trapping dust, bacteria and other microorganisms, and other foreign particles to prevent them from entering and damaging the ear. Ear wax also helps protect the delicate skin of the ear canal from becoming irritated when water is in the canal. The wax usually makes its way to the opening of the ear, where it falls out or is removed by washing.

In some people, the glands produce more wax than can be easily removed from the ear. This extra wax may harden in the ear canal and block the ear. More commonly, wax may block the ear canal if you try to clean the ear and accidentally push wax deeper into the ear canal.

Wax blockage is one of the most common causes of hearing loss. Symptoms of excess ear wax buildup include:

  • Earache
  • Fullness in the ear or a sensation that the ear is plugged
  • Noises in the ear (tinnitus)
  • Partial hearing loss, which may get worse

Self Treatment

If earwax blockage is a problem for you, ear, nose, and throat doctors recommend using mild treatments such as mineral oil, baby oil, glycerin, or commercial ear drops to soften earwax. If you suspect that you may have a hole in your eardrum, however, you should consult a doctor before using such products. A hole in the eardrum can result in hearing loss and fluid discharge.

Another method of removing wax is called irrigation. Use body-temperature water (cooler or warmer water may cause brief but severe dizziness or vertigo). With your head upright, straighten the ear canal by holding the outside ear and gently pulling upward. Use a syringe to gently direct a small stream of water against the ear canal wall next to the wax plug. Tip your head to allow the water to drain. You may need to repeat irrigation several times.

Never irrigate the ear if the eardrum may not be intact. Irrigation with a ruptured eardrum may cause ear infection or acoustic trauma. Do not irrigate the ear with a jet irrigator designed for cleaning teeth (such as a WaterPik) because the force of the irrigation may damage the eardrum.

After the wax is removed, dry the ear thoroughly. You may use a few drops of alcohol in the ear or a hair dryer set on low to help dry the ear.

When to Contact a Doctor

If you cannot remove the wax plug or irrigation causes discomfort, consult a health care provider, who may remove the wax by:

  • Repeating the irrigation attempts
  • Suctioning the ear canal
  • Using a small device called a curette