What is ear wax and how can you manage it?

Author thumbnail Jamie Broughton-Wray  |  Published 17 April 2023  | Updated 16 May 2024  | 7 mins read

A patient having ear wax removal appointment.

Ear wax – we all have it, but how much do you know about it? 

What does it do for our ears? 

When do we know there is a problem? 

And how do we manage our ear wax if it gets too much?

In this article, we will answer some of your burning questions, so you have everything you need to know about ear wax. 

Ear canal diagram.

What is ear wax?

Ear wax, or as it is scientifically known, cerumen, is a naturally occurring secretion produced by glands within the ear canal. Ear wax is the ear’s natural way to protect itself from foreign bodies and debris entering the ear canal. This is because the oily and sticky nature of our ear wax makes it the perfect protector for our ears, stopping (or rather sticking) these nasties in their tracks. The ear wax then slowly makes its way out of the ear canal, taking any collected debris with it.

And just when you thought that was the only function of ear wax, it even has antibacterial and antifungal properties to offer another barrier of protection for the eardrum against bacteria.

What causes a build-up of ear wax?

When our ear wax functions as it should, we rarely notice it. But there are some occasions when it can begin to cause us a problem and build up to a level that needs addressing. Here are some of the common causes of ear wax build-up.

  • Overproduction of wax: Some of us are predisposed to producing more ear wax than others. When this is the case, unfortunately, there is not a lot we can do to lessen this.
  • Infection and inflammation: Often, ear wax can build up as a side effect of an infection or viruses such as the common cold or flu. It can also occur as a result of inflammation in the ear.
  • Over-cleaning: contrary to popular belief, if you clean your ears, you could be doing more harm than good. Using things like cotton buds to clean your ears pushes your ear wax further down the ear canal, which could worsen the blockage.
  • Narrow or damaged ear canals: For those with narrow ear canals, ear wax is more likely to build up. This is because there is less room for the wax to travel. The same goes for damaged ear canals, where imperfections in the ear canal mean that ear wax can get stuck, causing it to build up.
  • Earphones and ear plugs: Most of us wear them, but prolonged usage of earphones and ear plugs can cause our ear wax to build up. Earphones stop airflow into the ear, which can prevent the ear wax from naturally leaving the ear, potentially causing it to build up.

Symptoms of ear wax build-up

How do I know I have a build-up of ear wax? When we have a build-up of ear wax, there are often some telltale symptoms we can experience. These include:

  • Ear ache
  • Temporary hearing loss
  • Tinnitus
  • Itchiness
  • Ear infections

In some cases, ear wax build-up can go unnoticed for some time and will not cause any physical symptoms. In instances like this, we can still find out an awful lot about our ears from the colour of our ear wax. Here are a few common colours and what they mean:

Yellow to light brown: For healthy functioning ear wax, we would typically expect it to be this colour. 

Dark brown: When our ear wax is dark brown, it means the wax has been in the ear for a while and will likely be quite hard. Wax of this colour could indicate there is a build-up.

Red: When ear wax presents itself as red, whether that is bright red or a brownish red, this indicates there has been a bleed within the ear which has occurred. Typically this is a result of damage caused by using cotton buds, but we’d recommend you get it checked out. 

Green or cream: Greens and creamy colours can be a sign of an infection. These can be, but are not always, linked with pain, dizziness or discharge from the ears. If you suspect an infection is present, we would advise you to see your GP. Creamy-coloured ear wax can also be a sign that peroxide-based drops have been used in the ears.

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Can you manage ear wax?

As we already know, ear wax is a naturally occurring substance, so there is not a huge amount we can do to prevent its production other than through our lifestyle choices. That means looking after ourselves, avoiding cleaning our ears with cotton buds and lessening our usage of earphones. 

We can, however, manage our ear wax when we get a build-up by having our ear wax removed by a professional. We would also recommend the use of medical-grade olive oil ear drops if suitable – these will soften the wax, making it easier for us to remove. Please make sure you speak to an audiologist, pharmacist or GP before using the drops.

A patient having ear wax removal appointment.

Ear wax removal 

What is ear wax removal? In simple terms, ear wax removal is the process of safely removing a build-up of ear wax, either manually or through methods such as microsuction or water irrigation.

When it comes to removing a build-up of ear wax, you should always get it done by a qualified professional, whether through your GP (although the waiting time for this can be very long on the NHS and a lot of surgeries no longer perform this procedure) or through a private service such as The Hearing Care Partnership. You should never attempt to remove your ear wax at home, no matter how easy you think it looks, as it could cause irreparable damage to your hearing and worsen the wax blockage. 

Here at The Hearing Care Partnership, we use the very latest and safest methods to remove your ear wax. The method of removal used will be chosen by your clinician during your appointment and will be dependent on the level of wax build-up, its condition and position within the ear as well as any pre-existing medical conditions.

If you would like to find out more about our ear wax removal service, please click below.

Book an appointment

So now you know what ear wax is and how to manage it should you experience a build-up, but what next?

Well, that is where we come in! At The Hearing Care Partnership, we are ready and waiting to help you with your wax and any issues you may be experiencing because of it. 

Our ear wax consultation costs just £70, with no hidden extras or costs, whether we remove ear wax from one ear or both. If no wax is found there will be a £25 consultation fee. During your appointment, your clinician will take the time to get to know you and your needs, talk you through the process and perform a quick hearing health check to ensure your hearing is back to its best – and if further assistance is required will book you in for a follow-up appointment,

To book an appointment, you can call our Dedicated Patient Support team on 0800 52 00 546 or book online.