Sonya Henderson’s son, Noah, was three-and-a-half years old when the Toronto mother noticed he was having hearing troubles. Noah would ask her to turn up the TV, even though his sister, who was sitting next to him, could hear it fine. When he started pronouncing new words incorrectly, Henderson took him to the doctor, who checked Noah’s ear and said that the eardrum was completely blocked with wax.
Earwax, which is made of secretions from glands in our ear canals, sweat, sebum and skin that has been shed, plays an important role in keeping our ears healthy, says Frederick Kozak, a Vancouver paediatric otolaryngologist (ears and throat doctor). “Wax fights infection, moistens and lubricates the ear canal, and traps little bits of dirt and dust,” he explains. Under normal circumstances, maintenance is simple: Ignore it. Wax naturally works its way out of the ear canal, bringing those trapped particles with it. Many parents make the mistake of seeing a bit of wax in the ear and cleaning it with a cotton swab or hairpin, says Kozak, but that’s likely just going to push the wax further inward—and risk injury. At most, use a cloth to wipe away bits of wax that have worked their way out.
Problems can arise if wax gets impacted, or your child happens to produce a lot of it. Wax covering the eardrum can cause hearing to be muffled or fuzzy and can also block a doctor’s view of the eardrum to complicate identifying an ear infection.
While the rule of thumb is not to clear your child’s ear of wax, if a doctor says there’s too much buildup, you’ll likely be sent home with instructions on how to remove it with olive or mineral oil. (Doctors’ suggestions vary, but typically you’ll have your child tilt the impacted ear upwards, then you drop a small amount of oil into the ear using a dropper a few times a day.) A doctor can effectively clear the wax by syringing water into the ear (known as irrigation) but, for obvious reasons, this method is not popular with kids. If wax is still built up after trying these methods, your doctor can refer you to a specialist, who can remove it using specialized tools under a microscope.
Luckily for Noah, olive oil did the trick. “On the third day of using the drops, hard chunks of wax started coming out of his ear,” says Henderson, who is happy to report that when Noah watches TV these days, she can’t hear every word from the other room.
You can find a variety of earwax-removal products at your local pharmacy, which include drops made from carbamide peroxide, peanut oil and olive oil, and special tools to remove the wax. But Frederick Kozak, a paediatric ear and throat specialist in Vancouver, says to pass on these products. “Using mineral oil or olive oil works just as well, and it’s cheaper,” he says. Only do this if you’ve been instructed by your doctor.
Did you know? The type of earwax you have is based on genetics: People of East Asian and Native American descent generally have dry earwax, while most others have wet earwax.