What is ear wax?

Ear wax is produced naturally by tiny glands in the ear canal, and normally forms a thin film as part of the ear’s natural cleaning system. Ear wax is important for keeping our ears healthy and clean, protecting against infection.


Excess ear wax is normally lost from the ear almost unnoticed, for example when sleeping or towelling our hair. Problems arise when the ear produces too much wax, which can build up and harden in the ear.


Build up or hardening of ear wax can make our ears feel blocked and uncomfortable. It can sometimes cause difficulty in hearing. In severe cases, the ear canal can become painful, with temporary hearing loss, dizziness and loss of balance as a result. When this occurs, the ear may need syringing by a medical professional.


Anyone can suffer from problematic ear wax, but it’s more common among people aged 40+. The good news is that it’s usually simple and painless to treat, and is certainly nothing to worry about.


When ears feel waxy or blocked, there is a temptation to reach for cotton buds but this should be resisted; they will only make the condition worse by impacting and pushing the wax further in. Using cotton buds may also cause serious damage to the ear.

Other Ear Problems


Tinnitus is often described as 'ringing in the ear.' It can affect one or both ears and may be due to several causes, including damage to hearing or a build-up of wax. Avoiding the build-up of ear wax can help prevent tinnitus, as can avoiding exposure to loud noise. If tinnitus occurs, it's important to talk to your doctor in order to establish the cause.


Outer ear infection or Otitis externa: An inflammatory condition of the outer ear canal, which can have a variety of causes. It can be extremely painful and hearing may be affected. Speak to your pharmacist or doctor if you have ear pain or inflammation.

Middle ear infections or Otitis media: these are common in infants and young children and can be acute or chronic:

  • Acute otitis media is usually short lasting, and often follows a cold. The symptoms are severe earache and sometimes fever, nausea and vomiting or loss of sleep.
  • Chronic otitis media is less painful but can last longer. It can result from a burst eardrum which hasn't healed completely.
  • Glue ear (Otitis media with effusion) results from chronic inflammation of the middle ear and an accumulation of fluid. It is common but often goes unrecognised, due to a lack of obvious symptoms. The usual feature is hearing loss. It's important to have this checked in order to get appropriate treatment and to rule out other problems.
  • If you suspect an ear infection, you should take your child to the doctor for diagnosis and treatment.

For more useful information, check the NHS website

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