Wondering if you have too much earwax? Did your at-home earwax removal go wrong? Here’s when to get evaluated.
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If you notice changes in your earwax, it isn’t an immediate red flag, but certain changes can be warning signs of larger health issues.
At this point, you likely know that cleaning your ears with a Q-tip shouldn’t really be done. Your earwax is actually a good thing, and “a sign of a healthy ear,” according to Maura Cosetti, the director of the ear institute of New York Eye and Ear Infirmary of Mount Sinai.
But what if you notice a change in your earwax color? Or you feel like your ear is clogged? Just because earwax is a necessary (and healthy) thing to have doesn’t mean certain earwax problems or changes can’t signify that something is wrong.
Here, experts share when your earwax may indicate a problem.
Your earwax is probably totally fine.
Between Q-tip cleanings and ear candling, earwax gets a bad rap. But, Jason A. Brant, an assistant professor of otorhinolaryngology, head and neck surgery at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, stressed that your earwax is probably fine as is.
“For the vast majority of people, earwax does not cause any problems at all and there is no need to remove it,” Brant said.
All in all, earwax doesn’t mean your ears are dirty. In fact, it’s a vital part of how the ear canals function.
“[Ear]wax has lots of great properties. It has a lubricant, and we think it has antimicrobial and even micro-fungal properties,” she said. “The earwax helps with overall ear health in general,” Cosetti said.
Subtle earwax changes are probably totally fine, too.
Over time, your earwax may change, and that’s OK. Healthy earwax looks different from person to person: It isn’t a one-size-fits-all thing.
“Normal earwax can range in color from light tan to dark brown to even almost black,” Brant said, adding that the consistency of earwax differs, too. It can be flaky, firm, soft or mushy.
“Subtle changes in the color or consistency of the wax usually do not indicate [a] serious problem,” Brant said.
Earwax can become a problem if it gets stuck in your ear canal.
According to Brant, at-home earwax removal tools like ear candles can push earwax deeper into your ear, which could in itself cause problems that require a visit to the doctor.
If you are going to try at-home ear cleaning anyway, do it safely and choose a method that’s suggested by experts. This can include wiping the outside of your ear with a soapy finger or using a solution like Debrox.
“Earwax [is] only a problem if it becomes impacted or stuck in the ear canal,” Brant said. “This can cause discomfort, hearing loss and lead to infections.”
When earwax is stuck in your ear canal, it has nowhere to go while your ear continues to make new earwax, according to Cosetti. This causes the earwax to fill up the canal until you develop unwanted, painful symptoms, she said.
Additionally, you should see a doctor if you notice a very liquidy discharge.
It is cause for concern if your earwax starts to look like pus or turns into a yellow or green liquid, which could be signs of an ear infection, Brant noted.
Also (and you likely already know this), “any blood in the ear canal or earwax needs to be looked at,” he said.
Ear pain is also a red flag.
If you experience ear pain or discomfort, it’s time to make an appointment with your doctor, Brant stressed. And this is the case whether or not the ear pain is associated with a change in earwax.
If your ear feels blocked, that also warrants a trip to your physician.
If your ear feels blocked with earwax, you’ll want to consult your doctor. And, hint, it probably isn’t earwax that’s making your ear feel this way, Cosetti stressed.
“Normal earwax shouldn’t feel [like] it’s blocking your ear,” she explained.
A blocked feeling could be the sign of a problem like sudden nerve-related hearing loss, according to Cosetti, which some folks misdiagnose in themselves, thinking it is just an earwax buildup. “Many people with sudden hearing loss don’t report that they [lost] their hearing, they usually report that their ear is clogged,” she said.
If you experience this feeling, reach out to your doctor ASAP.