By Barry Keate
Barry Keate, has lived with tinnitus over 40 years and has published 150+ research articles on numerous aspects of tinnitus. He is an expert on the condition and a well-known advocate for those with tinnitus.
Tinnitus can be a complex issue with multiple possible causes. One of the simplest to treat is earwax buildup or impaction. What causes impaction and how does earwax cause tinnitus? And what do you do to treat tinnitus caused by excess earwax? Keep reading and we’ll explain it all.
What Is Earwax?
Earwax, also called cerumen, is a waxy substance your body creates to protect your inner ear. It traps and eliminates dust, dirt, and debris. In normal amounts, cerumen protects your eardrum and helps prevent infections. Only when it builds up in your ear canal does it become a problem.
What Causes Cerumen Impaction?
There are several reasons why cerumen might get impacted within the ear canal:
- Excessive Ear Hair: People with unusual amounts of ear hair may find the hair traps cerumen so it cannot drain properly. If ear hair is the problem, you can remove the hairs by shaving with an electric razor designed for the purpose, pluck them with tweezers, or wax them. Never use hair removal cream as it can damage your ear.
- Narrow Ear Canal: A narrow ear canal may prevent adequate drainage, which is why children are more likely to have an earwax blockage.
- Ear Canal Angle: Everyone’s body is different. Slight variations in anatomy can interfere with normal functions. In this case, an upward slant prevents the ear canal from draining and lets it pool and harden.
- Cotton Swab Usage: Using a cotton swab to clean your ears can stimulate the ear to excrete more cerumen. It can also drive solid ear wax further into the ear canal or damage the eardrum. Use cotton swabs only on the outside of the ear canal.
- Hearing Aids: Hearing aids block drainage as they’re made to fill the void of the ear canal. The design is supposed to block ambient sound and feedback so the wearer can hear better in a crowded or noisy environment. If you wear hearing aids, you may need to clean the ear canal occasionally.
- Earbuds: Anything that goes in the ear can block drainage, including snug-fitting earbuds playing your favorite music. Knowing this can be an issue, it may be necessary to clean the ear canal periodically if you use these devices on a regular basis.
- Swimmer’s Ear Plugs
- Protective Ear Plugs (Used when shooting guns or working around heavy machinery)
How Does Earwax Cause Tinnitus?
Impacted cerumen creates pressure in the ear canal and against the eardrum. Pressure stimulates the tiny hair-like nerves in the inner ear.
When your ear canal is clear, sound enters through the opening, causing the eardrum and the attached bones to vibrate. Each tiny hair-like nerve has its own frequency and will vibrate when that frequency is heard. The nerve sends a signal to the brain, which we interpret as sound.
When the nerves are stimulated artificially with pressure in the ear canal, it doesn’t sound like a single note but a continuous rushing, chiming, or ringing sound. That ringing sound can only be heard by you because it doesn’t have an external source.
Can Earwax Impaction Be Fixed?
The good news is earwax is easy to get rid of. Once the earwax is gone and the pressure released, most cerumen-caused hearing loss and tinnitus should go away.
How Do You Clean The Ear Canal Without Cotton Swabs?
You can go to your provider to have your ears cleaned or you can try doing it yourself.
Your provider has the advantage of being able to see the problem. With the help of an otoscope, they can see an enlarged image of your ear canal. Once they see the blockage they can determine how to remove the earwax. Methods can include using tiny forceps to pull pieces out, flushing your ears, or using a suction device.
Do It Yourself
Your provider can recommend ways to clean your ears at home, especially if this is a regular occurrence. Options include:
Prescription Earwax Softener: This solution will work on the wax until it can drain more naturally, providing tinnitus relief. To use this method, lay down so the affected ear is facing up, pour several drops of the liquid into the ear, and wait 10 minutes before turning over. Let your ear drain onto a paper towel or washcloth, then wash the outer ear with a warm washcloth.
Saline: Sterile salt water similar to tears can gently dissolve the wax.
Oil: Olive oil, mineral oil, baby oil, or glycerine will also break down the wax gently so it can drain. To ease an earache, you can warm the oil, but be sure it is comfortable to the touch before putting it in the ear. You don’t want a burn in your ear canal.
Hydrogen Peroxide: You can use the solution sold to remedy small cuts or buy peroxide ear drops. Be prepared for it to bubble and pop as it works.
Can Cerumen Buildup Cause Permanent Hearing Loss?
If left untreated, prolonged pressure can cause permanent tinnitus hearing loss. It is important to see your provider if you notice hearing loss or tinnitus symptoms to avoid lasting damage. It would be a shame to have lasting hearing loss when the cause is so easy to fix.
Should tinnitus continue after dealing with the cerumen, chances are there other factors involved. There are various therapies and products for tinnitus that have helped other individuals find tinnitus relief. You don’t have to suffer and yearn for silence.