Every four or five years, I suffer a temporarily deafening buildup of ear wax. It usually hits me early in the outdoor swimming season, when pond water seeps in behind and around the growing wax ball.
Years ago my doctor recommended an olive-oil and warm-water procedure to remove it safely at home. When I suspect the wax buildup, I get out my gear: an eye-dropper, a hand-held bulb syringe, and a little olive oil.
I sterilize the dropper and the syringe in boiling water, warm (to skin temperature) some oil on the stove, and use the eye-dropper to insert a few drops of the warmed oil into each ear, tilting my head to one side to allow the oil to flow down into my ear canal.
In the morning, I fill the syringe with warm water and, kneeling in my bathtub, tilt my head sideways and deliver a strong squirt into each ear. Sometimes it takes a few swishes of warm water and a few good shakes of the head before for the wax ball slides out.
Don’t use a pressurized device (e.g., a Water Pick) to flush out the wax, as it could damage your eardrum.
Occasionally, I have to repeat the process another evening. Other times, the wax comes out without any warm-water syringing.
For decades the technique has worked well for me. But if I experienced pain, swelling, or unusual sensations in my ear before or after using this technique, I’d definitely see my doctor.
Doctors warn against removing ear wax unless symptoms develop (sense of pressure/swooshing, ringing, or roaring in the ears). Earwax serves important health benefits: It lubricates and cleans the ear canal, picking up bits of dirt, dust, and dead skin that stick to it on the way out. The wax also contains antibacterial substances that help prevent infection. It generally removes itself without help.
Experts also warn against poking cotton swabs or anything else into your ears that might push the wax ball further down into the ear canal. Wearing ear buds for MP3 listening or ear plugs for sleep may also encourage wax buildup by blocking its normal exit route.
Frugal folks in times past have used earwax for a variety of purposes.
- Medieval scribes mixed earwax (as one among many other substances) to prepare the pigments they used to illustrate illuminated manuscripts.
- The 1832 edition of the American Frugal Housewife recommended earwax as a remedy for cracked lips and noted that "nothing was better than earwax to prevent the painful effects resulting from a wound by a nail [or] skewer."
- Dating back to medieval times, early sewing needles often had an “earscoop” at one end, designed for harvesting earwax that the seamstress would use on thread to stop the cut ends from fraying.
Margaret Boyles lives in a wood-heated house in central New Hampshire. She grows vegetables, eats weeds, keeps chickens, swims in a backyard pond in summer, snowshoes in the surrounding woods in winter, and commutes by bike whenever possible.