How Does Ear Syringing Work?

Updated April 17, 2017

Earwax build-up can cause temporary hearing loss, discomfort and pain. Since the ears of many people produce more wax than is needed for its function of keeping dirt, germs and skin particles away from the eardrum, it sometimes becomes necessary to safely remove the wax. Attempting to remove wax with cotton swabs or other devices inserted into the ear can be not only dangerous but also ineffective, as this can actually push the wax more tightly against the eardrum and make it more difficult to remove. A safer method is to use a syringe with warm water. This can be done at home or during a visit to the family doctor (an ear specialist is not required for this simple procedure). For home use, a squeeze-bulb rubber syringe can often provide a powerful enough jet of water to dislodge earwax. In more stubborn cases of wax build-up, it may be necessary to have a physician assistant or nurse use an electric syringe that provides a continuous and more powerful jet.

Softening the Wax Before Using a Syringe

The softer the earwax, the easier it will be to remove. The most effective way to soften and dissolve earwax is to use hydrogen peroxide from an eyedropper. The head should be tilted to one side and kept level so as to keep the peroxide from spilling out. About one-fourth of an eyedropper of hydrogen peroxide is typically more than enough to do the job effectively. A tissue or napkin should be held nearby to catch any spillage. The dropper is held directly over but not inside the ear opening, and the peroxide is squeezed out. After a few seconds, a foaming and frothing noise may start up as the peroxide begins to dissolve some of the wax. The earwax of some people may show little reaction to the peroxide. After two or three minutes, the head is tilted back to a vertical position and the peroxide, which often turns brown or yellow, due to dissolved wax, can be allowed to absorb into the tissue. This procedure may need to be repeated in the case of stubborn, hardened earwax.

Use of the Syringe

For home syringing, a plastic or glass vessel should be filled with warm water. With one's head poised over a bathroom sink, a rubber squeeze-bulb syringe is inserted into the water, squeezed tightly, and allowed to fill with water. The syringe (like the eyedropper) is brought to the opening of the ear but not inserted, and the bulb should be squeezed smoothly but vigorously so that all of the water comes out at once. This may need to be repeated several times, adjusting the angle of the syringe so that the water is most effectively directed toward the area of wax build-up. If the water drains immediately from the ear, repeat the process. If it remains and the ear sounds and feels plugged, this likely means that a clump or earwax has come loose but has not yet been expelled. It may take additional applications of peroxide or many more shots of water from the syringe to dislodge plugs of earwax, which will normally be quite visible in a bathroom sink before disappearing into the drain. If one is not comfortable with this procedure, or if dislodging wax has proved impossible, it may be best to schedule a visit to a clinic or doctor's office. The syringes kept in medical offices have far greater water pressure and can offer sustained bursts of water to remove wax. Additionally, the medical practitioner is able to look into the ear during and after the application of water to see the results.

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About the Author

David B. Ryan has been a professional writer since 1989. His work includes various books, articles for "The Plain Dealer" in Cleveland and essays for Oxford University Press. Ryan holds degrees from the University of Cincinnati and Indiana University and certifications in emergency management and health disaster response.