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Tinnitus and Ear Wax: Causes, Symptoms, and Treatment Options for Relief



What are ear wax and tinnitus?

Ear wax, also known as cerumen, is a mixture of secretions from the ear canal. Part dead skin, part fats, and oils, and ear wax play an important role in maintaining your ear health. it helps protect against foreign bodies and constantly cleans your ear of debris and dead skin.

Tinnitus is the sensation of hearing a noise in the ears or head when there is no source for the noise in the outside world. Often characterized as buzzing or rushing, there is actually a huge variety of sounds that people describe including musical tones.

Tinnitus and wax are best viewed as separate problems and in most cases unrelated to one another. While it is true, occasionally wax impaction can cause tinnitus, this isn't always the case, and in my experience not even commonly the case. Yet, if you have experienced a sudden onset of tinnitus, especially if it is accompanied by a drop in hearing, then it is best to check for ear wax as the first port of call.

Why does ear wax build-up?

There are a number of reasons why ear wax can build up in the ear canal:

Genetics: Some people simply produce more ear wax than others, which can lead to a build-up over time.

  • Ear canal shape: The ear canal is slightly curved, which can make it more difficult for the ear wax to work its way out of the ear. This can cause the wax to accumulate over time.

  • Ear canal hair: The ear canal has tiny hairs called cilia, which help to move the wax toward the opening of the ear. In some cases, these hairs can become damaged or brittle, which can make it harder for the wax to be removed naturally.

  • Environmental factors: Dust and debris can accumulate in the ear canal, which can cause the wax to become impacted. Similarly, exposure to water can cause the ear wax to soften and make it more likely to get impacted.

  • Use of earplugs or hearing aids: These can cause pressure to be exerted on the ear wax, which can push the wax further into the ear canal.

  • Medications: Certain medications, such as ear drops can cause the ear wax to expand and block the ear.

Symptoms of ear wax buildup

Ear wax build-up can cause a number of issues. The most common is a feeling of blockage and associated hearing loss or muffling sound. Depending on the location of the blockage and how hard the wax is, there may also be some discomfort and even pain. The deeper the wax is in the ear canal towards the eardrum, the more sensitive the ear is.

Occasionally, people can even feel dizzy with wax build-up, if the wax presses against the ear drum. Finally, tinnitus is a very common symptom. It can either cause tinnitus afresh or make pre-existing tinnitus louder. The good news is when the wax is removed the tinnitus usually reverts back to its original level.

How to remove ear wax

It's important to stress that having some ear wax is normal and healthy, and unless it is causing you concern, you shouldn't remove it. In the above cases, however, it is important the wax is removed.

Many over-the-counter ear drops are designed to soften and break down ear wax. This wax then can make its way out of the ear with natural processes. This can take time, however, and people are often not willing to put up with the uncomfortable feeling of an ear full of wax, so they look for alternative options.

Other home remedies are ear cleaning kits. Some of these have small spatula-type hand-held utensils. which can be used to gently remove wax. These are of limited use however unless the wax is already at the outside opening of the ear canal. it is not advised for non-professionals to go beyond this point.

Some kits have a water syringing bottle which can be self-applied, with the hope the water can go behind the wax and bring it out on its return. One has to be careful with these however as if the pressure is too high, you can damage your ear drum. It is also not recommended for people that have perforations.

The safest way to remove your ear wax is through professional microsuction. A small suctioning tube is placed in the ear the wax is gently sucked through this and out of the ear canal. This should only be done by experienced professionals.


What causes Tinnitus?

Tinnitus is a very complicated condition that has many possible causes. These range from blockages within the outer, middle, and inner ear, to trauma to the ear, and even causes that are completely unrelated to the ear. There is even a type of tinnitus known as somatosensory tinnitus which is when a person hears a sound related to the physical movement of the body. It can even be related to one's pulse.

Symptoms of tinnitus

The main symptom of tinnitus is the awareness of a sound in the ear(s) or the head. For some people, it comes and goes, but for most it is constant. There are then associated symptoms related to the impact tinnitus has on a person. Some people get insomnia because of the inability to sleep and others avoid socialising because the noise makes the tinnitus louder.

Treatment options for tinnitus

There is as of yet, no cure for tinnitus. Yet, this does not mean it can't be managed. Some of the management options include sound Apps on the phone, the use of sound generators and hearing aids worn in the ears, and mindfulness. it is best however to approach the management of tinnitus with a professional audiologist who can provide effective counseling so the options are most likely to be effective.

Can ear wax cause tinnitus?

When wax blocks the ear canal as it gets impacted, this causes temporary hearing loss which causes the internal tinnitus to become temporarily raised in volume. This is because the background noise that usually helps mask internal tinnitus is no longer available to serve this purpose.

Ordinarily sounds around us are very effective in masking tinnitus. This means the sound of tinnitus isn't noticed as much around other noise. This is why people that have tinnitus often report it is a lot louder when in the quiet. When one has a wax blockage there are blocking out this environmental sound, and the tinnitus is perceived as being louder because of it.

In such cases, the removal of ear wax will normally resolve the issue and then tinnitus is likely to return to its original (quieter) levels. This isn't always the case though, and occasionally even the wax being removed will not remove the tinnitus.

What can I do to stop this ear wax from causing tinnitus?

To prevent ear wax build-up, we advise that you do nothing more than use olive oil drops once a week. Although even this isn't necessary in most cases, for people that have a problem with wax buildup, by keeping the wax soft they are increasing their chances of the wax coming out itself. One should never go it and try and 'clean' their ears with cotton buds or the like. In most cases, you will simply end up pushing the wax further down the ear canal.

If you have a history of ear wax buildup and you are one of the unlucky ones that find wax builds up quicker than normal, it is good practice to have your ears checked once a year. This means the ear wax can be removed more easily before it gets impacted. Some people even have to come more frequently, like every 6 months.

As suggested earlier, our ears are too precious to risk going to anyone but a professional to have them cleaned. Sadly in our opinion the current regulations even allow none ear specialists like pharmacists to do microsuction after completing a basic one-day course. We don't feel this is correct, and we feel strongly that only an Audiologist or ear specialist should perform ear microsuctioning.


Final words...

In summary, this article has attempted to clarify the link between tinnitus and ear wax. Each has its own causes and symptoms, but in some cases, a build-up of wax can cause tinnitus or make it worse. This is usually temporary and by removing the wax, the tinnitus either goes away or goes back to its original level.

If you have a history of ear wax buildup, or if you feel your tinnitus is a lot louder than usual with additional muffled ears then it's best to get your ears checked. You can book your appointment with us online or over the phone, and one of our experienced audiologists will be happy to help you.

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