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Ear conditions

Ear wax build up

What ear wax is

Ear wax is a normal, oily substance that helps to clean and protect your ears. It usually comes out of your ears by itself over time.

It’s good for our ears to have a little bit of wax but it can sometimes build up for lots of different reasons. This can cause discomfort and affect your hearing.

Ear wax build-up can affect anyone. Although those who have narrow ear canals or wear hearing aids may be more likely to have ear wax build-up.

How to know if you have ear wax build up

If you’ve noticed hearing loss or ear pain and aren’t sure what’s causing it, see your GP. Your GP can look inside your ears to see if your symptoms are due to a build-up of ear wax or something else.

If you suddenly lose hearing in one or both ears, you should contact NHS 111 or your GP, urgently.

It could be a medical emergency requiring urgent treatment.

If you can’t see your GP or call NHS 111 for any reason, go to your nearest accident and emergency department.

When ear wax needs to be removed

Ear wax usually clears by itself over time. However, sometimes ear wax builds up and needs to be removed.

National guidelines recommend that GPs offer wax removal if the ear wax build-up is causing problems. You might need ear wax removing if it is causing:

  • hearing loss
  • earache
  • tinnitus
  • itchiness
  • stopping your hearing aids from working properly.

You may also need to have your ear wax removed if it’s stopping a specialist from:

  • examining your ears
  • carrying out a hearing test
  • taking impressions of your ear canal for hearing aid earmoulds.

See your GP if you cannot hear anything out of your ear. This may mean the wax is fully blocking your ear canal. This can potentially lead to an ear infection.

What to do if you need ear wax removal

This information applies to ear wax build-up in adults.

Managing your own ear wax build up

You may be advised to try using ear drops to manage the wax build-up yourself at first. Some ear sprays also exist. Sometimes it will still be necessary to get your ear wax professionally removed.

The NHS website recommends using olive oil ear drops from a pharmacy. These drops can be used 3-4 times a day for 3-5 days. This helps to loosen up the wax which may then fall out of the ear over 2 weeks or so.

Follow the advice of your healthcare professional or pharmacist. If you have tried using ear drops and are still having problems, see your GP.

There are some situations when you should not attempt any method of managing the ear wax yourself. Seek medical advice first if:

  • you have a hole in your ear drum (perforated ear drum).
  • you have a known ear infection, or signs of one. For example, significant ear pain or discharge.
  • you have dermatitis/eczema affecting your ears.
  • you have had ear surgery.
  • you have been advised by a healthcare professional to avoid getting water in your ear.

Reminder: If you suddenly lose hearing in one or both ears, you should contact NHS 111 or your GP, urgently.

We are campaigning to make sure NHS advice is consistent and appropriate. Find out more about our ear wax campaign.

Things you should not do

  • Never insert any objects into your ear. This includes cotton buds, tissue and hair grips. Inserting anything in your ear can push wax deeper, damage the skin of the ear canal and damage your ear drum. This includes some products which claim to help remove wax.
  • Don’t use ear candles. They don’t help to remove wax and can cause serious injury.

How to use ear drops or ear sprays

Follow the advice of your healthcare professional or pharmacist and read the instructions included with your ear drops or ear spray. Read ENT UK’s step-by-step guide for how to use ear drops and ear sprays.

NHS ear wax removal 

Olive oil can sometimes help relieve some of the symptoms of ear wax build-up. However, some people will still need to have ear wax removed by a professional.

See your GP to find out more about getting your ear wax professionally removed. This usually involves either:

  • Ear irrigation – washing the wax out of the ear canal with water.
  • Microsuction – a specialist uses a small suction device to remove the wax.

We at RNID know that many people have been unable to access wax removal services on the NHS and we’re campaigning to change this. Find out more about our campaign to ensure clear, safe advice and treatment for ear wax removal is available on the NHS.

Ear wax removal with private providers 

There are some private and high street providers offering wax removal at a cost. If you do decide to have wax removed this way, make sure the person you see is a suitably qualified professional.

For example, an audiologist, nurse or doctor, trained in ear wax removal. Check that they use a safe method of wax removal such as ear irrigation or microsuction. They should ask you some medical questions and examine your ears to make sure that they can remove the wax safely.

How ear wax build-up can affect your hearing aids

If you wear hearing aids, ear wax can affect how they work. A large build-up of ear wax can cause hearing aids to ‘whistle’. This should stop when the ear wax is removed.

Ear wax can also stop your hearing aids from working properly if it enters the tube or speaker. If this happens, you may have to have your hearing aid serviced. It may help to clean your hearing aids more often.