Putting a cotton swab in your ear is a terrible way to clean it, since the swab may remove a little bit of earwax but tends to shove the rest in deeper. But if you’ve a developed a q-tip habit, it can be hard to break. Here’s what you should do instead.
You don’t actually have to clean your ears. Believe it or not, ears are self cleaning. The goo moves outward, aided by your jaw motions as you chew and talk. Nifty! This does mean that bits of brown or yellow earwax will sometimes be visible at the entrance of your ear canal. If they’re noticeable, you can wipe them up with a tissue, a wet washcloth, or even...well, technically you could use a q-tip. But maybe it’s best not to tempt yourself.
Use some drops
If you really feel that you have too much earwax in there somehow, there are non-q-tip related ways to get it out. The simplest is to put a few drops of mineral oil, glycerin, hydrogen peroxide, or over-the-counter ear cleaning drops into your ear. Wait a minute or two, and then tilt that ear downward. Some softened, slightly liquified earwax may come out. Wipe it off with a tissue. Too gross? Remember, “Just don’t” is always an option
Ask a doctor
If you’re convinced that you have way too much earwax, like enough that your ear feels blocked and your hearing is being affected, it’s best to seek help. Your primary care provider can examine your ears, and can help you figure out if earwax is really your problem, or if you might have something else going on, like an ear infection. If you already see an audiologist or an ear-nose-and-throat specialist, they could help you, too.
If your problem really is an earwax blockage, your provider can remove it. They might do an irrigation in the office, using earwax-softening drops and then using fluid to remove the wax. (Fun fact: doctors call earwax cerumen. It’s not actually a wax.) Or they might recommend an at-home earwax irrigation kit, which you can buy over the counter. It’s also possible to get a procedure that removes an earwax impaction with a camera and tools, which is fascinating to watch if you’re into that sort of thing.
If you’re still curious about how earwax can block your ears and what to do about it, you might want to read these guidelines from the American Academy of Otolaryngology, which explain to doctors the best practices for dealing with impacted earwax. High on their list of recommendations: tell patients to quit sticking q-tips in their ears. You’re welcome.