Have you ever been tempted to clean out your ears (or your children’s ears) with cotton swabs? Experts have one word of advice: don’t!

Earwax (cerumen) is supposed to be in your ears. It has a mission: to keep your ears healthy by trapping dust and dirt so that they don’t travel deeper into your ear. Having a waxy coating on your delicate ear canal skin also helps to protect it. The inside of your ear doesn’t need to be cleaned because earwax is the cleaner.

A young girl wincing as she cleans her ear with a cotton swab.

Your body already has a way to deal with earwax it no longer needs. Chewing, other jaw movements, and skin growing inside your ear will push old earwax out naturally. Using cotton swabs, however, can push the wax deeper into your ear canal. You might also seriously damage sensitive ear canal skin or your eardrum. 

Earwax buildup is not very common. According to the American Academy of Otolaryngology—Head and Neck Surgery, just 1 in 10 children and 1 in 20 adults have this problem. Some people may be more susceptible to  earwax build up. About 3 in 10 elderly adults and developmentally disabled adults might have more of a problem with earwax.

Signs of too much earwax or earwax that is stuck and blocking the ear canal include:

  • Pain or itching
  • A feeling that your ear is full
  • Ringing in the ear (tinnitus)
  • Hearing loss (or a change in how well hearing aids work, for those who use them)
  • Odor or discharge

If you have any of these symptoms, see a doctor or other health care provider. 

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