Earwax & Tinnitus
Earwax buildup in your ear canal can cause tinnitus. This article will explain the science behind earwax buildup and its impact on general hearing health and tinnitus.
What Is Tinnitus?
Tinnitus is the experience of hearing “nonexistent” noise in your ears. People describe a ringing sound, but you could also hear hissing, buzzing, roaring, or clicking.
Each case of tinnitus is unique. The sound you think you hear can come and go, or it can be constant. Some people hear a high volume of sound, and others equate it to background noise.
Tinnitus affects between 15 and 20 percent of the population. Tinnitus is not a disease — it's a symptom of an underlying problem like wax impaction in your auditory system. To understand what causes tinnitus, you need to understand how we hear.
How Do We Hear?
The auditory system includes all the parts of the outer and inner ear and the part of the brain that interprets sound. It works a little something like this:
Sound funnels through the outer ear and the auditory canal to the eardrum.
Sound causes the eardrum and the tiny attached bones to vibrate.
These vibrations reach the spiral-shaped cochlea in the inner ear.
The cochlea transforms sound into nerve impulses that travel to the auditory cortex of the brain.
The brain interprets the sound.
Anything that disrupts this system can cause tinnitus, including certain drugs, deterioration, or damage to parts of the ear, Meniere’s disease, otosclerosis, high blood pressure, anemia, allergies, ear infections, and impacted ear wax.
How Does Impacted Ear Wax Cause Tinnitus?
Ear wax or cerumen prevents infection in your ear canal and eardrum. Usually, wax works its way to the outer ear. When it doesn't, and too much ear wax accumulates in the ear canal, it gathers debris, hardens, and blocks up the auditory system. Ear wax impaction can be caused by things like cotton swabs, earbuds, and earphones.
Usually, the blockage only causes poor hearing, but sometimes the system overcompensates for this sound reduction. When the impacted wax interrupts sound and neural circuits fail to receive their typical stimulation, the circuits react by "chattering."
Your confused brain tries to interpret the activity as sounds like ringing, whistling, hissing or buzzing. What does this mean for you?
Simply put, removing ear wax may cure your tinnitus.
How to Remove Ear Wax at Home
To remove excess or impacted ear wax, you can go to your doctor or use home remedies. You can do earwax removal at home with ear drops and warm water irrigation.
Hydrogen Peroxide and Oils
There are several substances you can use to break up ear wax:
If you use peroxide, some water could still be in your ear after treatment. Experts recommend putting a couple of drops of rubbing alcohol into the ear and draining it to prevent an infection.
If you use one of the oils, it helps to warm it up a little. You can hold a small bottle in your hand to warm it or immerse a larger container in hot water for a minute or so. We have a natural reflex in our ear canals that may cause temporary dizziness if the liquid is too cold.
If you have never used ear drops, here’s a quick how-to:
Tilt your head to one side and gently pull your outer ear up and back.
Use a dropper to squeeze 3 or 4 drops into your ear. This liquid will help to soften the ear wax.
Keep your head tilted or lie on your side for 5 minutes. Then, turn over and drain the drops onto a towel. The wax will not come out all at once.
You can repeat this procedure daily for up to 14 days.
Warm Water Irrigation
For faster results, use warm water irrigation. After you have used a few drops of hydrogen peroxide or oil to soften and loosen ear wax, you can use a rubber bulb syringe to irrigate the ear with warm water, like this:
Fill the syringe with water and squirt out a small amount to eliminate air.
Tilt your head to the side and gently pull your ear straight back so that your ear canal straightens.
Holding the tip of the syringe about ¼” from your ear, gently squeeze the bulb to squirt in some warm water.
Lie with your ear on a towel and pull down your earlobe to drain the water out completely.
Be sure to dry your outer ear thoroughly.
You can put a few drops of alcohol into your ear and drain that to help get all the water out. Alcohol also resets the pH of the ear canal, which may prevent infection.
Using a basic ball syringe and towel works fine, but you can also use an ear wax removal kit. Irrigation kits can be easily purchased over the counter and generally include a spray bottle, tubing, several tips, and a drainage container you can hold under your ear.
Typically, these kits work better than using direct water from a shower since flooding the ear with water can cause damage to the ear canal or eardrum and start an infection.
Ear Wax Removal Tools
Doctors can use special tools to pull ear wax out because they have a lighted scope and can clearly see what they are doing. Using most of these tools at home can be dangerous, but there are some safe products available.
Spiral Swabs can help remove wax you dislodged using drops or irrigation. You can safely insert the pointed silicon spiral into your ear and twist it in the indicated direction so it will pick up loosened ear wax. These kits come with multiple disposable tips.
If impacted ear wax blocks sound signals in your ear, removing it could be the easiest and fastest solution to your tinnitus.
Your doctor can remove the wax, or you can remove it from the comfort of your home using oils or warm water irrigation.
“Over many years in practice as an ENT doctor, I am always amazed at how many patient symptoms are related to earwax. It is important to see your healthcare provider if earwax is a problem for you and in some cases there is a real need to have an ENT specialist ultimately take care of the earwax.” - Drew Sutton, MD, Board-Certified Otolaryngologist.
As always, we recommend consulting a medical professional before attempting at-home treatment, but these solutions should give you a good overview of how you can clean earwax buildup to treat tinnitus. Hopefully, one of these remedies helps!
Best of luck on your journey to better hearing!
Drew Sutton M.D.
Drew Sutton, MD is a board-certified otolaryngologist. He has extensive experience and training in sinus and respiratory diseases, ear and skull base surgery, and pulmonary disorders. He has served as a Clinical Instructor at Grady Hospital Emory University for more than 12 years.