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What can I do about my son’s wax plugs?
Q: My 4-year-old son has extremely waxy ears, and has had wax plugs in each ear. Our family doctor told us not to worry about it, but I am concerned. He has only had one ear infection, and rarely is sick with colds and flu. What can be done about children with wax plugs and waxy ears?
A: Lisa, it’s great that your son has been so healthy. Your doctor is right—earwax rarely causes serious problems. Some people produce a lot of earwax and others produce less. But it’s usually best to leave earwax alone. Earwax helps protect the ears from irritation and infection by keeping water, dirt and germs out of the ear canal. In fact, problems are more likely to arise from incorrectly trying to remove the earwax.

Earwax is produced by glands in the outer part of the ear canal. Normally, the ear canals naturally move the wax outward to clear themselves of excess earwax. When you wash your child’s hair, you can clean the earwax off the outer part of his ears with a towel.

There’s an old saying, “Don’t put anything smaller than your elbow in your ear.” Although you may be tempted to clean your child’s ears more deeply, it is not safe to use cotton swabs or bobby pins to try to clear earwax—this can push it deeper into the ear canal onto the ear drum, compact the earwax into a hard plug, which is more difficult to remove and cause temporary hearing loss, ringing in the ears or a feeling of fullness, dizziness or disorientation. It can also scrape the delicate skin of the ear canal, leading to an infection of the ear canal or puncture the eardrum, leading to an infection of the middle ear and hearing loss.

If the earwax in your child’s ears has built up and is causing discomfort and/or hearing loss, there are two basic ways to remove the earwax:
  • Home treatment with eardrops: You can use mineral oil, baby oil, glycerin, over-the-counter earwax removal drops or stronger prescription drops. The eardrops help soften and dissolve the earwax, and allow it to drain out. If you use mineral oil, baby oil or glycerin, place a few drops in your child’s ears a couple times a day, for up to five days. If you use a commercial product, follow the directions on the package. It is important to know that this should not be done if your child has tubes in his ears or a perforated eardrum since it could force fluid and germs into the middle ear and cause a serious ear infection. If your child has had an ear injury, sudden hearing loss, fever or drainage from the ear—which might indicate a perforated eardrum—consult your doctor immediately.

  • Professional removal of earwax: If your child has ear tubes or a possible perforated eardrum, or the eardrops have not worked, ask your doctor to remove the earwax. The doctor may use a variety of techniques including washing out the wax or visualizing the wax with a scope and carefully scraping it out.