Asking and answering a common question: Can earwax blockage cause hearing loss?

When wax builds up too much, it can become stuck in place, and acts as a barrier that stops sound from travelling into the inner ear.

ByDr Sanjeev Mohanty

Published Dec 14, 2023 | 8:00 AMUpdatedDec 14, 2023 | 8:00 AM

In case of earwax blockage, consult an ENT doctor. (Wikimedia Commons)

Can earwax cause hearing loss? If you’ve experienced an earwax blockage before, then you’ve likely noticed that your hearing was muffled and diminished for some time. It’s only natural to be concerned that it might cause hearing loss.

To put it simply, yes, earwax can cause hearing loss. In fact, an earwax impaction is the most common cause of conductive hearing loss that there is.

When wax builds up too much, it can become stuck in place, and acts as a barrier that stops sound from travelling into the inner ear as it normally would.

A total earwax impaction is rare, so usually, there is some space for sound to travel through. However, if you feel like your hearing is muffled and that your earwax is getting in the way of your ability to communicate, you need to meet an ENT specialist.

There is a fad in some quarters to indulge in ear candling, which is a very unscientific and unproven method of earwax removal.

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Ear wax impaction and its effects

When we think of earwax, it’s usually because we’re trying to remove or clean it away. However, earwax isn’t necessarily bad. In fact, it’s very important to the health of the ear.

Earwax blockage. (Cleveland Clinic)

Earwax blockage. (Cleveland Clinic)

Earwax, or cerumen, is a substance that’s designed to catch and trap dust, bacteria, and other debris that could irritate the ear or lead to an infection.

Normally, earwax moves to the outer ear naturally and we simply wipe or clean it away. This usually happens because the movement of our jaw when we chew, talk, and swallow breaks up the earwax, leading it to migrate out of the middle ear.

Our ears normally clean themselves, so for most people, earwax is very rarely a problem. In fact, if you were to remove all the earwax in there, you would likely find that your ears become dry, itchy, and achy as they’re much more easily irritated.

However, some people produce more earwax than others. When this happens, the earwax can build up to the point that it starts to block the ear. This leads to an earwax blockage or impaction.

When that happens, the blockage can stop sound from progressing into the ear, leading to hearing loss. This hearing loss is most often temporary and to fight it, you only need to remove the blockage.

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Impact of earwax blockage

Besides the difficulty in hearing, there are some other symptoms that are a clear sign that you have an earwax blockage:

  • Itchy or irritated ear
  • Earache
  • Coughing
  • A full or plugged up feeling in the ear
  • Tinnitus, or ringing in the ear

If you experience any of the above, your ENT doctor can help with a thorough and professional ear cleaning.

How to remove earwax causing hearing loss?

One of the most important things to remember is that when you experience earwax blockage, you should never put anything in your ear in an attempt to clean it out. All these thoughts about “ear detox”, etc, and the adoption of ear candling is a big myth.

Warm saline irrigation done by an ENT doctor. (Creative Commons)

Warm saline irrigation done by an ENT doctor. (Creative Commons)

Many people have fallen into the bad habit of using cotton swabs or other small foreign objects to try and clean the inside of their ears, including wax candles with the lit end outside. This is dangerous to say the least.

The melting of hot wax itself could be a cause of further troubles. Moreover, rather than helping, this more often pushes the earwax in further, making the blockage even harder to remove.

Furthermore, cotton swabs and other objects can irritate or damage the inside of the ear canal skin, which can lead to an infection and may even cause harm to the very sensitive parts of the ear, such as the eardrum.

It is advisable to consult a qualified ENT doctor for such complaints.

Having your ear cleaned by an ENT doctor is both the safest and the most effective way to get rid of earwax blockage and to undo hearing loss caused by it.

(Prof Dr Sanjeev Mohanty is an expert ENT and Head and Neck specialist, presently a Senior Consultant & Head of the Institute of ENT, Head and Neck Surgery at MGM Healthcare, Chennai.)