Dear Doc | What could be growing in my ears!
Q I read your article about ringing in the ears, and I got concerned. I don’t have the ringing, but I have pain in my ears and I have difficulty hearing. My ears feel like something is growing in them and filling them up. I tried cleaning them with a Q-tip, but that was painful, and the Q-tip came out with wax on it. I am afraid to go to the doctor because I was told that something was growing in them. What could it be?
A It sounds as though you have earwax impaction.
Earwax impaction is when wax builds upon your ear canal enough to cause symptoms. Normally, earwax functions to protect the inside of the ears from injury and infection, but having too much earwax can cause symptoms such as pain and trouble hearing.
Young children and older adults are more likely than others to have earwax impaction.
There are many causes for earwax impaction, such as:
- Diseases that affect the ear – Some health problems will affect the shape of the inside of the ear, making it difficult for earwax to move out of the ear, such as skin problems that cause skin cells to shed a lot. This can lead to wax build-up in the ears.
- A narrow ear canal – Some people have narrower ear canals than others. These persons will be more likely to have earwax impaction. A person’s ear canal can become narrower after an ear injury or after severe ear infections, or multiple ear infections.
- Changes in earwax with ageing – As people get older, their earwax gets harder and thicker. This makes it difficult for the wax to move out of the ear as it should.
- Bad ear-cleaning habits – Many individuals, just like you have, try to clean their ears using cotton swabs, also referred to as Q-Tips, as well as other tools. This can actually push the wax deeper into the ear instead of getting it out. Over time, this will cause as well as worsen earwax impaction.
- Making too much earwax – Some people simply make more earwax than others. This tends to happen when water gets trapped in the ear, or when the ear is injured. However, some persons produce a lot of earwax for no obvious reason.
Persons who have earwax impaction typically complain about symptoms which include:
- Difficulty hearing.
- Pain in the affected ear.
- Hearing a ringing noise in the ear (tinnitus).
- Feeling like the ear is blocked or plugged.
As you can see, you have similar symptoms, and these symptoms may affect one or both ears.
Most persons after hearing this, their first instinct is to then go and attempt to clean their ears at home. But this is not recommended. Sticking things into the ears in an attempt to clean them can instead push the wax in deeper and cause worsening of the impaction.
However, what I do suggest is, since you are displaying most of the symptoms of earwax impaction, I recommend you see a doctor. He or she will check the inside of the ears to ensure that your symptoms are being caused by earwax impaction and not another problem, such as an ear infection.
There are several treatments to help remove impacted earwax. These treatments, however, are offered only to people who have bothersome symptoms, as it is not recommend to offer these treatments for removing earwax in people who have no symptoms, even if their ears are impacted.
The various ways to remove earwax are:
- Ear drops – There are special ear drops that will soften the earwax and help it to drain out. These ear drops are not safe for use in persons with an ear infection or suffer damage to their eardrum.
- Rinsing – In some cases, your doctor will remove impacted earwax by squirting water into the ear to rinse it out. This is also referred to as irrigation.
- Special tools – There are different types of special tools a doctor might use to remove earwax safely. These include small sticks, hooks, and spoons. There are also tools that use suction to pull the wax out.
You should see your doctor to ensure that you don’t have an ear infection, and that your eardrum is in tact before treatment is started. They will also recommend ways to prevent future wax build-up.
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