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Ear Blockages


Bradley W. Kesser

, MD, University of Virginia School of Medicine

Reviewed/Revised Apr 2022 | Modified Sep 2022

The ear canal may be blocked by earwax (cerumen), scar tissue, a tumor Ear Tumors Tumors of the ear may be noncancerous (benign) or cancerous (malignant). Most ear tumors are found when people see them or when a doctor looks in the ear because people notice their hearing... read more , a foreign object, or an insect. Blockages can occur when people, particularly children, put foreign objects, such as beads, erasers, and beans, into the ear canal.

Symptoms of Ear Blockages

Ear blockages may cause

  • Itching

  • Pain

  • Ear fullness

  • Temporary hearing loss

Symptoms of excessive earwax can range from itching to ear fullness to a loss of hearing. However, even large amounts of earwax often cause no symptoms.

Foreign objects may remain unnoticed until they cause pain, itching, infection, or a foul-smelling, pus-filled discharge.

Treatment of Ear Blockages

  • Methods to remove ear blockages

Before and after attempting to remove earwax, a foreign object, or an insect, doctors may do a hearing test, particularly if the person also complains of hearing loss. If the person's hearing does not return after the blockage is removed, the blockage (or prior attempts to remove it) may have damaged the middle or inner ear. If the person's hearing worsens after the blockage is removed, the removal process may have caused damage. Permanent injury to the ear canal or eardrum, pain, and hearing loss are rare if earwax or foreign objects are removed in a careful and safe manner with proper lighting and instruments.

Removal of earwax

To remove earwax, the doctor may use an

  • Earwax curette—an instrument with a loop at the end

  • Suction device

These methods can be quicker and safer than the use of water to flush out the wax (irrigation). Irrigation is sometimes done and may be combined with an agent to soften the ear wax. Irrigation is definitely not used if a person has or has had a perforated eardrum (hole in the eardrum), because water can enter the middle ear (air containing space on the other side of the eardrum) and cause a middle ear infection. Similarly, irrigation is not used if there is any discharge from the ear, because the discharge may be coming from a perforated eardrum. Irrigation is also not used in people with an ear infection, diabetes mellitus, any disorder that weakens a person's immune system, prior radiation therapy to the head and neck, certain ear canal abnormalities, and people on blood thinning drugs. Discharge from the ear is most safely removed with a small suction device and a microscope.

Certain solvents (such as liquid docusate sodium, hydrogen peroxide, glycerin, or mineral oil) help soften earwax before the doctor attempts to remove it. These solvents cannot be used long-term, however, because they may cause skin irritation or allergic reactions in the ear canal. People should not attempt to remove earwax at home with cotton swabs, bobby pins, pencils, ear candles, or any other items. Such attempts usually just pack the earwax deeper into the canal and can damage the eardrum. Some people require routine cleaning by a doctor because their ear canal is narrow, their earwax is sticky or thick, or they have a chronic skin condition in the ear canal Dermatitis of the Ear Canal Dermatitis of the ear canal is itching, scaling, flaking, and swelling of the skin of the ear canal and skin at the entrance of the ear canal. There are two types of dermatitis of the ear canal... read more . Ear candling is neither effective nor safe and is strongly discouraged.

Did You Know...

  • People should not attempt to remove earwax at home with cotton swaps, bobby pins, pencils, ear candles, or any other items. Such attempts usually just pack the earwax deeper into the canal and can damage the eardrum.

Removal of a foreign object

Foreign objects in the ear canal should be removed by a health care practitioner and, in some cases, an otolaryngologist (an ear, nose, and throat doctor). The doctor carefully removes the foreign body using a microscope and special tools. For some objects, the doctor uses a small, blunt hook or small vacuum device. Objects with an edge (such as paper) can be removed with small alligator forceps. Objects that are deep in the canal are more difficult to remove because of the risk of injury to the eardrum.

For many children, removal of a foreign body is usually safest when done in an operating room. In an operating room, children can be sedated or given anesthesia to lessen pain and help them remain still, which prevents additional injury to the ear.

Insects, particularly cockroaches, may also block the ear canal. To kill the insect, the doctor fills the ear canal with thickened lidocaine (a numbing agent that provides immediate pain relief) or alcohol (if the eardrum is intact). After several minutes, the insect dies, enabling the doctor to remove it.

Drugs Mentioned In This Article

Generic Name Select Brand Names
BeneHealth Stool Softner, Colace, Colace Clear, Correctol, D.O.S., DC, Diocto, Doc-Q-Lace, Docu Liquid, DocuLace, Docusoft S, DocuSol, DocuSol Kids, DOK, DOK Extra Strength, Dulcolax, Dulcolax Pink, Enemeez, ENEMEEZ Kids, Fleet Pedia-Lax, Genasoft, Kaopectate Liqui-Gels, Kao-Tin , Phillips Stool Softener, Plus PHARMA, Silace, Stool Softener , Stool Softener DC, Stool Softener Extra Strength, Sulfolax, Surfak, Sur-Q-Lax , Uni-Ease , VACUANT
Colace Glycerin, Fleet, Fleet Pedia-Lax, HydroGel, Introl , Lubrin, Orajel Dry Mouth, Osmoglyn, Sani-Supp
Fleet, Kondremul, Liqui-Doss, Muri-Lube
7T Lido, Akten , ALOCANE, ANASTIA, AneCream, Anestacon, Aspercreme with Lidocaine, Astero , BenGay, Blue Tube, Blue-Emu, CidalEaze, DermacinRx Lidogel, DermacinRx Lidorex, DERMALID, Ela-Max, GEN7T, Glydo, Gold Bond, LidaMantle, Lidocan, Lidocare, Lidoderm, LidoDose, LidoDose Pediatric, Lidofore, LidoHeal-90, LIDO-K , Lidomar , Lidomark, LidoReal-30, LidoRx, Lidosense 4 , Lidosense 5, Lidosol, Lidosol-50, LIDO-SORB, Lidotral, Lidovix L, LIDOZION, Lidozo, LMX 4, LMX 4 with Tegaderm, LMX 5, LTA, Lydexa, Moxicaine, Numbonex, ReadySharp Lidocaine, RectaSmoothe, RectiCare, Salonpas Lidocaine, Senatec, Solarcaine, SUN BURNT PLUS, Tranzarel, Xyliderm, Xylocaine, Xylocaine Dental, Xylocaine in Dextrose, Xylocaine MPF, Xylocaine Topical, Xylocaine Topical Jelly, Xylocaine Topical Solution, Xylocaine Viscous, Zilactin-L, Zingo, Zionodi, ZTlido
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