What is impacted earwax?

Impacted earwax is a build-up of wax inside your ears.

Earwax (known medically as cerumen) is naturally produced by your ear canals. It’s a substance that protects your ear canal by collecting dust, dirt and dead skin from your outer ear, combining them with the oily secretion and forming them into earwax.

From time to time, harder wax is produced, particularly as you get older, and it moves much more slowly through your ear canal. This can result in build-ups, which can become impacted.

Impacted earwax causes

Your ears naturally self clean, so using items like cotton buds can actually push the wax further into your ears, which can cause impacted earwax.

But that’s not the only cause. When you produce too much earwax, or if it’s drier or stickier than usual, it can also lead to impacted earwax.

There are a number of other causes too, including:
  • Age - as you get older, your earwax naturally becomes drier
  • Moisture - this can cause the earwax to expand
  • Narrow ear canals
  • Hairy ear canals
  • Earplugs, earbud headphones and hearing aids
  • An increase in the debris and dead skin in your ears
  • Medical conditions, such as eczema

Impacted earwax symptoms

Impacted earwax causes a range of symptoms, including:
  • Hearing difficulties
  • ‘Full’ ears
  • Itching
  • Tinnitus (a hissing, ringing or roaring in the ears)
  • Dizziness
  • Pain, due to pressure on your ear canal or ear drum
  • Discharge
  • Coughing, caused by pressure on the vagus nerve

Though they’re unpleasant while they last, these symptoms should ease when the earwax has been removed.

Impacted earwax diagnosis

If you suspect you may have impacted earwax, you should speak to your GP or audiologist so they can examine your ears.

To confirm the diagnosis, they’ll use an otoscope to look inside your ears and examine your inner ear. If impacted earwax is causing the issue, it should be clearly visible, and your GP or audiologist will be able to advise you about its removal.

Impacted earwax treatment

There are several options when it comes to impacted earwax treatment:

Earwax removal at home
The saying ‘never put anything smaller than your elbow in your ear’ rings true. However ‘full’ or irritated your ears may feel, don’t be tempted to clean them using small items such as cotton buds. They can actually push the wax deeper into your ear canal, resulting not just in impacted earwax, but possible infection or a perforated eardrum.

Instead of reaching for the cotton buds or diy home remedies, speak to your GP or pharmacist as they’ll be able to advise which over-the-counter products will be best for your situation. Alternatively, take a look at our tips for cleaning your ears at home.

Professional earwax removal
Impacted earwax can be painful, make it hard to hear, and the irritation it causes can result in infection. So it’s important that you have it professionally removed, whether by your GP or by practitioners such as our team.

Our practitioners can safely and effectively remove wax and debris using a gentle microsuction technique developed by ear, nose and throat (ENT) specialists.

Depending on the extent of the build-up, you may need a second appointment, but our team will be able to advise you if that’s the case.

Find out more about our earwax removal services.

When to see your GP
While some earwax removal can be carried out safely at home or by our team at Boots, there are some instances when it’s best to see your GP. Always speak to your doctor if:
  • You’re vomiting
  • Your ears are painful
  • You have discharge coming from your ear
  • You have a fever
  • The blockage is making it difficult to hear
  • Your ear is still blocked after using ear drops for five days

Frequently asked questions

What causes excessive earwax?
There’s no one cause of excessive earwax.

Age is a factor in excessive earwax production (particularly as it gets harder and drier as you get older), as are narrow or hairy ear canals. Some people also naturally produce more earwax.

You’re also more likely to produce excessive earwax if you have an underlying medical condition - such as eczema - or your ear has been affected by trauma or disease.
Can excessive earwax affect balance?
If your earwax becomes impacted and causes a blockage, you may notice symptoms such as dizziness, which can affect your balance.

However, once the build-up is removed, this and any other symptoms should subside. If they don’t, speak to your doctor.
Can excessive wax cause ear infections?
Yes, but only if left untreated.

As the earwax clears dead skin cells or other debris from your ear canal, bacteria become trapped within it. If the wax then becomes impacted and isn’t removed, it can lead to an outer ear infection called swimmer’s ear (otitis externa).

So it’s always important to treat your impacted earwax.
Will impacted earwax fix itself?
Earwax usually moves through your ear canal on its own. But if it has become impacted, it will be harder and drier, so it’s unlikely that it will clear up as it won’t be able to move through your ear canal as easily.

It’s therefore important to have it professionally removed as there’s a risk of infection if it’s left alone.
Can earwax cause tinnitus?
Impacted earwax puts pressure on the nerves in your middle and inner ear, which leads to symptoms of tinnitus, including hissing, ringing or roaring sounds.

If these symptoms started at the same time as other symptoms of impacted earwax, such as hearing difficulties or ‘full’ ears, it’s likely that the tinnitus is caused by the earwax, and not anything else.

These symptoms should ease once the earwax build-up has been removed, but if they persist, or began before any other symptoms, it could be that there’s an underlying cause and you should speak to your GP.
Can you remove impacted earwax at home?
You can, but it’s important that you speak to your GP or pharmacist first, so that they can advise the best course of treatment.

Don’t be tempted to try DIY remedies, such as ear candles or cotton buds, to remove impacted earwax, as this can actually damage your ears and could make the condition worse. They can also cause other issues, including perforated eardrums.
How long does it take to remove impacted earwax?
Depending on the treatment and how severely the earwax is impacted, it can take anything from a few days to a few weeks for the wax to be removed.

You might also need to undergo more than one course of treatment, or attend one or more appointments before it’s fully removed.
Can impacted wax cause ear pain?
Yes. It’s common to experience earache with impacted earwax, as it can cause pressure on your ear canal and eardrum, which can irritate the nerves and lead to pain.
Can impacted earwax cause headaches?
Yes. Once the earwax is removed, any symptoms - including headaches - should ease.

If your symptoms continue, you should speak to your GP, as headaches can have a number of causes.

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