Hearing management

Updated 04 December 2017

Home remedy for ear wax effective

The so-called bulb syringes commonly sold over the counter for ear wax removal may work as advertised - at least for some people, a new study finds.


The so-called bulb syringes commonly sold over the counter for ear wax removal may work as advertised - at least for some people, a new study finds.

In most cases, ear wax build-up can be managed with home treatments that soften the wax - like placing a few drops of mineral oil or glycerine in the ear, according to the American Academy of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery.

Another at-home option is ear "syringing", which involves placing drops of a wax-softening solution into the ear, then using a rubber-bulb syringe to flush the ear with water and clear the wax.

Home kits for ear wax

Home bulb-syringe kits are widely available, but there has been little research into whether they actually work - and no studies on whether they allow people to avoid visits to the doctor for ear wax removal.

For the new study, UK researchers followed 237 patients who visited a clinic for ear wax removal. They were randomly assigned to either use a bulb syringe at home, or have their ears "irrigated" by a nurse at the clinic.

Over the next two years, 73%5 of the professionally treated patients returned to the clinic for a repeat treatment. That compared with 60% of those in the bulb-syringe group.

The study

And on average, patients in the syringe group had almost half the number of clinic visits versus those given a professional treatment the first time.

Presumably, some patients in the syringe group had kept the device and were using it to self-treat at home, according to study leader Dr Richard Coppin, of The Surgery in Hampshire.

In an email, he said that bulb syringes could be worth a try for people bothered by ear wax.

"They appear to be effective, at least for some people," Coppin said.

And, he added, "it's probably easier to buy a bulb and clear your ears at home in your own time than to book up to be seen in a physician's office."

Ear wax isn't actually wax

Despite its name, ear wax is not "wax," but a mixture of secretions from the outer ear, along with dead skin cells and hair. It is normal and necessary for healthy ears, acting as a self-cleaning agent with lubricating and antibacterial properties.

However, ear wax can accumulate inside the ear to the point where it causes an impaction and symptoms including hearing loss, "ringing" in the ears, pain or a feeling of fullness in the ear.

In those cases, wax removal may be necessary.

In general, experts advise against using cotton swabs, which tend to only push the wax farther into the ear. People should also avoid home "oral jet irrigators" - which operate at a high pressure - as well as so-called ear candling, which involves inserting a hollow cone-shaped device into the ear canal and lighting the exposed end.

The findings

Bulb syringes appear to be low-risk, according to Coppin. A recent research review concluded that the treatment appears "reasonably safe."

Ear irrigation in general carries some risk of perforating the eardrum. But with bulb syringes, Coppin noted, it is unlikely that a person would exert so much pressure as to harm the eardrum.

Unlike in the US and many other countries, bulb syringes are not sold over the counter in the UK. Coppin and his colleagues estimate that if Britons could try bulb syringes before going to the doctor, that would nearly halve the 2 million professional ear wax removals done in the UK each year. (Reuters Health/ March 2011)

Read more:
Ear canal infection


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Hearing Expert

Dr Kara Hoffman graduated from UCT in 2004, thereafter she completed her year of community service in Durban. In 2010 she completed her Masters Degree in Paediatric Aural Rehabilitation from UKZN. In 2016, she became a Doctor of Audiology through the University of Arizona (ATSU). Dr Hoffman and her partner Lauren Thompson opened a fully diagnostic audiology practice called Thompson & Hoffman Audiology Inc. In 2011 with world-class technology and equipment to be able to offer the broad public all hearing-related services including hearing testing for adults and babies, vestibular (balance) assessments and rehabilitation, industrial audiology, hearing devices, central auditory processing assessments for school-aged children, school screening, neonatal hearing screening programmes at Alberlito and Parklands Hospital, cochlear implants and other implantable devices, medicolegal assessments and advanced electroacoustic assessments of hearing. Thompson and Hoffman Audiology Inc. are based at Alberlito Hospital in Ballito, St Augustines Hospital in Durban and at 345 Essenwood Road, Musgrave. The practices are all wheelchair friendly. There are three audiologists that practice from Thompson & Hoffman – including Dr Kara Hoffman, Lauren Thompson & Minette Lister. The practice boasts professional, highly qualified, and extensive diagnostic services where all your hearing healthcare needs can be met. The additional licensing in vestibular assessment and rehabilitation, paediatric rehabilitation and cochlear implantation places this practice in one of the top specialist audiological positions in South Africa, with a wealth of experience in all clinical areas of audiology and is a very well respected and sought-after practice.

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