Fact Sheets : Earwax- A Parent's Guide

What is the purpose of earwax?

Wax is part of the ear's natural protection or defense against germs and other particles.

Is earwax bad?

No. Practically speaking, the main difficulty is that the wax can completely cover the ear drum. When a doctor examines the ear he/she cannot see the eardrum and therefore cannot determine if there is an infection or other problem. Contrary to popular belief, wax build up does not cause ear infections or any other serious problems. In very rare cases, the wax can build up so much that it can actually block hearing.

Tips on cleaning your child's earwax at home:

  • Q-tips or any other long objects should never be inserted into a child's ear.
  • When bathing a young child, gently wash around the outside of the ear with a wet washcloth.
  • If a child tends to have a lot of wax, place a few drops of mineral or baby oil in the ear and covering it with a cotton plug overnight. Doing this once or twice will usually clean out the wax completely.
  • Commercially available drops called cerumenolytic agents designed to melt or break down the wax are not recommend as they tend to irritate the ear canal.

What if earwax cannot be removed at home?

In this case, the wax it should be removed by a physician or qualified nurse. There are two ways this can be done:

  1. Syringing the ear. As the child is lying down, a syringe, full of warm water, is gently inserted into the ear and the water is flushed into the canal removing or washing out the wax. This may take a few tries before the wax is fully removed.
  2. Curetting, when a thin instrument called a curette, held like a pencil, is used to directly remove or literally "pick out" the wax; Under direct visualization with a light, the doctor gently removes the wax using the curette.

Generally these techniques are not painful but obviously will be more difficult to perform in younger children. If the wax is very hard however, sometimes the parents will be asked to go put apply oil or hydrogen peroxide drops before hand in order to soften the wax.