Chances are you already know using a cotton swab to clean wax from your ears is a personal hygiene no-no. Earwax — which isn’t wax at all but a mix of oily secretions, hair and dead skin cells collectively called cerumen — is there for a variety of reasons. It acts as a lubricant and antibacterial agent, for example. Plus, Mother Nature designed ears to be self-cleaning. Whenever we chew, cerumen that’s done its duty migrates to the outer ear where it becomes dry and flaky and easy to swipe away with a washcloth-wrapped finger.

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But if your ear is clogged, what then?

If you feel your ears are stuffed with wax — doctors call this cerumen impaction — you can use an earwax removal kit from your pharmacy. But it’s just as easy — and cheaper — to follow these steps from experts at Penn Medicine.

  • Tilt your head in the opposite direction of the ear you want to treat (i.e., drop your head toward your right shoulder to take care of your left ear). Put 5 to 10 drops of warm mineral oil, baby oil or glycerine inside your ear.
  • Keep your head tilted for a few minutes so the solution doesn't drip out. Or put a cotton ball in your ear while the wax softening solution is working.
  • You can straighten your head once the solution has seeped in, but wait 15 to 20 minutes to remove it. Do this by using a bulb syringe filled with distilled water to gently flush out the softened earwax.
  • After irrigating your ear with the water, empty it by tilting your head again and gently moving the outer part of your ear in a circle. Then tilt your head the other way to allow the water to flow out.

Ear, nose, and throat specialist Christopher Chang, MD, with Fauquier ENT Consultants in Warranton, Virginia, especially likes using this method. "Should there be a hole in the eardrum, distilled water is safe. The [chemicals] in purchased kits are not," he says.

Don't irrigate your ears if you have tubes in them or know you have had a ruptured eardrum.

Related: Swimmer's Ear Treatment and Prevention

When earwax won’t budge

Flush your ear every day for a few days. If you develop these symptoms of a serious earwax impaction, see your doctor:

  • Feeling your ear is blocked
  • Earache
  • Ringing or an unusual noise in your ear
  • Persistent itching
  • An odor
  • Ear discharge
  • Coughing
  • Dizziness

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An impaction must be removed. If it worsens it can cause irritation, hearing loss and other problems. A doctor will first examine your ear with an otoscope to make sure your symptoms are really the result of an earwax impaction. Sometimes, explains Chang, clogged ears are a symptom of another problem, such as a Eustachian tube issue, in which case you should see an otolaryngologist (ear, nose and throat specialist, or ENT).

If the problem is a wax blockage, your primary care doctor or an ENT can remove it using special instruments, such as a cerumen spoon or suction device.

If you wear a hearing aid, have eczema or are prone to producing too much ear wax, see your doctor once a year or more often to have excess wax removed. 

Dianne Lange is a Lake Tahoe-based freelance writer specializing in health and travel. She is the author of four books on cancer and a former editor at SELF, Health, Natural Health and Prevention. Her work has appeared on websites such as RealAge.com, SymptomFind.com, WebMD and Everyday Health.