Earwax, or cerumen, protects our ears from damage and infection. Produced by glands in the skin that lines the ear canal, the main function of earwax is to trap dust and small particles and stop them from reaching the eardrum and causing damage.
Earwax usually clears away naturally - a small amount of wax makes its way to the opening of the ear, where it's washed away, or dries up and falls out along with any trapped dust and dead skin cells. You may notice the wax on your pillowcase, towel or flannel.
Sometimes the wax builds up and becomes too hard to fall out naturally, resulting in the earwax blocking the ear passages. Some people's ears make more earwax than others and so they experience blockages more frequently.
Usually, a blockage happens when a person pokes cotton buds, twisted tissues or even safety pins, hair grips or paperclips into the ear canal to clean their ears. Rather than removing the wax, this action forces it deeper into the ear and could damage the lining of the ear canal or the eardrum.
If you have wax blockage, you may feel one or more of the following symptoms:
Earache, or the feeling your ear is plugged
You hear ringing or other noises
Gradual hearing loss
Itching, or discharge from your ear
Safe ear cleaning
Never insert any object into your ear canal to dig out hardened wax. If you want to clean your ears, wash the outside with a cloth - but your usual skin cleansing and hair washing regime should clean the wax from your ears without additional attention.
However, if you do have a blockage caused by wax, you can buy softening drops from a pharmacist, or place a few drops of baby oil or olive oil in your ear. Do this twice a day for four or five days, and the wax should clear up.
If this doesn't work, visit your doctor. He might try to remove excess wax with a small curved instrument, irrigate or syringe your ear with warm water to soften the wax, or he might try to suction the excess wax out.
Ear candling has been suggested as an alternative treatment. This is when a long, cone-shaped hollow candle is inserted into the ear canal and the exposed end is lit. The theory is that a vacuum is created which draws the wax out of the ear. Never be tempted to use ear candles on your own because they may cause serious injury unless used by a professional.