Earwax build-up and removal | Pī taringa

Earwax (pī taringa) is naturally produced by your body to protect the inside of your ear from dust and infection.

Key points

  1. Earwax is normal. Earwax not causing symptoms or blocking your ear canal should be left alone.
  2. Usually, earwax moves slowly from the inside to the outside of your ear, where it falls out.
  3. Sometimes the wax builds up and forms a plug that blocks your ear. In some cases, the wax plug falls out by itself without any treatment.
  4. At other times, the build-up needs treatment. This includes drops or syringing, microsuction or manual removal by your healthcare professional.
  5. Using cotton wool buds or ear candles is not recommended.

What is ear wax?

Ear wax is a waxy secretion made by your ear canal. It helps to clean your ear and prevent infections. It does this by being sticky and trapping dust. The muscles of the ear help the wax to move out of the ear. It is usually yellow or brown in colour. 

Image credit: 123rf

What causes the build-up of ear wax?

Some people naturally produce a lot of wax or produce hard and dry wax that is more likely to build-up. Other factors affecting wax build-up include:

  • having hairy or narrow ear canals 
  • being an older adult, as earwax becomes drier with age
  • bony growths in the outer part of your ear canal
  • working in dusty environments
  • humid environments.

Inserting objects into your ear canal, such as cotton buds, ear plugs or hearing aids can also cause wax blockage.

What are the symptoms of earwax build-up?

The build-up of ear wax in your ear can cause:

  • discomfort, itching or pain in your ear
  • a feeling of fullness or a blocked feeling in your ear
  • hearing problems, eg, mild deafness
  • ringing, humming or buzzing in your ear (tinnitus)
  • dizziness (vertigo).

These can happen in one or both of your ears.

How is wax build-up treated?

Many people try to clean out earwax blockage with cotton wool buds. This is not recommended as the wax is often pushed deeper inside and you risk injuring your ear canal. Also avoid ear candles as they have no proven benefit in the removal of earwax and can cause serious injury. 

Instead, use one of following treatment options:  

Ear drops

You can do this treatment yourself.

  • You can buy ear drops (eg, Waxsol) from your pharmacy to soften the wax. Read the full instructions on the packaging.
  • Alternatively you can use olive, canola or baby oil. Use 2–3 drops in your ear 3–4 times a day and do this for 3–5 days.

Read more about how to apply ear drops.

Syringing or ear irrigation

Warm water is squirted into your ear to weaken and dislodge the wax. The wax flows out of your ear with the water. Your doctor or nurse can do it, or you can do it at home using a special treatment kit (eg, Audiclean) from your pharmacy.

Microsuction/manual removal

A small device is used to suck the earwax out of your ear or alternatively a thin instrument with a small hoop at one end is used to remove the wax. These procedures are generally only available from specialist audiology (ear) services, although some branches of Hearing NZ offer them.

Read more about earwax treatment.

How can wax build-up be prevented?

Some people are naturally prone to wax building up in their ears and may need frequent treatment to remove it when it becomes a problem.

Regular use of olive oil drops (2–3 drops in each ear once a week) may reduce the build-up of wax. This can be particularly useful if you use hearing aids or ear plugs.

Some people find that chewing sugar free gum helps as the movement of muscles during chewing helps move the ear wax out of the ear.

Read more about the do's and don'ts of ear care.

Learn more

The following links provide further information on earwax. Be aware that websites from other countries may contain information that differs from Aotearoa New Zealand recommendations.

Earwax Ear Nurse Specialist Group, NZ
Waxy ears HealthInfo, NZ
Earwax build-up NHS, UK
Earwax Better Health, AUS


  1. Removal of ear wax  NZ Formulary, NZ
  2. Earwax management Australian Family Physician, October 2015
  3. Schwartz SR, Magit AE, Rosenfeld RM, Ballachanda BB, Hackell JM, Krouse HJ et al. Clinical practice guideline (update) – earwax (cerumen impaction) Otolaryngology – Head and Neck Surgery. 2017; 156(1S):S1–S29.
Credits: Health Navigator Editorial Team . Reviewed By: Dr Mathew Van Rij, GP, Lower Hutt Last reviewed: 09 Dec 2019