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Earwax Problems

What is earwax?

Everyone has earwax. The color can normally vary from light yellow to dark brown. Earwax is not dirty or abnormal, in fact it contains natural chemicals in it that kill germs. It also keeps dust off the eardrum and protects the lining of the ear canal.

The ear canal is designed to clean itself. Earwax is produced in the outer third of the ear canal. Earwax moves outward during chewing and the normal growth of the ear canal's lining. Every day or two, you may notice a little earwax at the opening of the ear canal. If you do nothing, this earwax will fall out on its own. Unless there is a blockage, it is best to leave earwax alone. If you push the earwax back into the ear, as usually happens when you try to remove the wax from the inside of the ear canal, it becomes more difficult for the wax to come out naturally.

How do I flush out my child's earwax?

Use the following instructions for flushing out earwax only if earwax is completely blocking one of the ear canals and your child can't hear on that side. If the hearing seems normal on that side, the blockage is only partial and you can leave it alone.

  1. If the wax is hard, soften it first. Use a 15% baking soda solution. Make it by adding 1/4 teaspoon (1.25 mL) of baking soda to 2 teaspoons (10 mL) of water. Fill the ear canal and leave it in for 1 hour. After an hour, most the earwax should be dissolved.
  2. When the wax is soft, wash it out with water. A little hydrogen peroxide can be added to the water. Use a rubber ear syringe or Water-Pik at the lowest setting. The water must be at body temperature to prevent dizziness.
  3. If the earwax does not seem to be coming out, flush it with the head tilted so that the ear with the wax is down. Gravity will help the water wash it out (the waterfall effect).
  4. Flush out the ear several times, until the water that comes out is clear and the ear canal seems open when you look in with a light.

CAUTION: Never put water in your child's ear if there is any chance the eardrum has a hole in it or if your child has ventilation tubes.

How can I help prevent earwax problems?

Nothing should be put inside the ear canal to try to hurry the earwax process along. Using cotton swabs just ends up packing the wax deeper. Earwax doesn't need any help getting out. Cotton swabs also carry the risk of damaging your child's eardrum if your child turns his head suddenly. Tell everyone in your family that the most common cause of earwax buildup is putting cotton swabs into the ear canal. Another common cause is wearing earplugs of any type.

How should I remove earwax?

In general, leave it alone. On special occasions where earwax is right at the opening of the ear canal and you feel compelled to remove it for cosmetic reasons, flick it out with a little folded piece of paper.

When should I call my child's health care provider?

Call during office hours if:

  • Flushing out the ear canal doesn't return the hearing to normal.
  • Any discharge other than earwax comes from the ear canal.
  • Blockage from earwax recurs after you stop using cotton swabs.
  • You have other concerns or questions.
Written by B.D. Schmitt, M.D., author of "Your Child's Health," Bantam Books.
Published by McKesson Provider Technologies.
Last modified: 2004-03-23
Last reviewed: 2006-03-02
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
Copyright 2006 McKesson Corporation and/or one of its subsidiaries. All Rights Reserved.
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