Earwax Buildups: When to Take Your Child to Visit a Pediatrician

Kids, like the rest of us, produce earwax, or cerumen in medical terminology, with which parents do not concern themselves much, apart from keeping their children’s ears clean.

Most parents only take notice if their kid produces excess earwax, which can lead to complications manifesting one or more of the several possible symptoms of the condition. A visit to the pediatrician often includes examining the child’s ears and cleaning the earwax, leaving the parents wondering about the effectives of their own ways of maintaining the child’s ear hygiene, about the purpose of earwax in the first place and what they could do to prevent an earwax buildup from occurring.

What Is the Purpose of Earwax?

Earwax plays an important role in our ears. It is secreted naturally from the sebaceous and ceruminous glands in the ear canal and mixed together with shed skin cells forms the waxy substance that we know as earwax. Its role is to move dirt, debris and foreign bodies out of the ear with the process of epithelial migration, which we assist with jaw movement.

Kids like to play outside on the lawn or in sandboxes and are likely to get some dirt into their ear canals. Earwax will collect the dirt and gradually expel it on its way out of the ear.

Earwax also protects and lubricates the ear canal skin and acts as a safety barrier against water, bacteria and fungi.

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Excess Earwax Can Lead to…

Your kid producing too much earwax does not necessarily result in complications, but if the wax forms a blockage it can cause several symptoms like:

  • Ringing in the ears or tinnitus
  • Hearing loss
  • Irritation or itchiness in the ear canal
  • Pressure sensation in the ear canal
  • Ear pain
  • Discharge or odor from the ear canal
  • Dizziness

Impacted earwax will additionally present problems to your child’s doctor by obstructing their view when they try to inspect the ears and identify the underlying cause of the condition.

How to Remove Earwax?

Earwax removal is a popular topic of discussion and google searches, which reveal myriad of hygiene products and wax removal kits available online or at your local pharmacist. To maintain your kids’ ears clean daily, most physicians recommend simply taking a soft washcloth and wiping away the earwax that has reached the outer part of the ear canal.

Using cotton swabs or buds to clean your child’s ears is strongly advised against as most experts believe cotton swabs only make matters worse. You can easily push the wax further in instead of removing it alongside the risk of perforating your eardrum.

Not surprising, no single method of removing the excess earwax has been proven to be more effective than others. If your child produces more earwax than others and it causes problems, there are usually three recommended methods of removing the wax:

  • Earwax solvent drops, also known as cerumenolytics – basically ear drops that help to soften the wax, clear away any blockages and make it easier to remove the wax. They can be water-based, oil-based, or use other active ingredients like carbamide peroxide. Ear drops are readily available without prescription at your pharmacist or online and often include wax removal implements.
  • Manual removal – pediatricians often use metal or plastic curettes, or similar implements, to manually remove the earwax. This method is helpful in cases when other methods cannot be used due to pre-existing conditions like ear tube insertions or a perforated eardrum. Inserting medical implements into the ear canal is a delicate procedure and it is advised to leave it to trained professionals, rather than trying to perform it yourself.
  • Ear irrigation – a very common and popular method used in the doctor’s office, which you can also perform yourself at home, provided that you have the right equipment. The method employs an irrigation tool that flushes the excess earwax out of the ear with a gentle stream of water or saline solution. You can buy ear wax remover tools on diyhappy.com, where you can also buy an ear irrigation tool set.

No single method has a clear edge over the others and combining methods is also very common. Pediatricians will often use wax solving drops before attempting to remove the earwax with a curette or an irrigation tool.

Avoiding Earwax Buildups

Every parent that has dealt with this problem in this past will know that while there are methods and treatments to help your child with excessive earwax secretion and potential blockages, they are both time-consuming and unpleasant for most children. A question comes to mind: What action should be taken to prevent such troublesome buildups from happening in the first place?

Generally, the production of the earwax in our ears is a self-regulating and self-cleaning process. The wax slowly moves toward the outer part of the ear where it dries up and leaves the ear canal, expelling collected dirt along the way. Under normal circumstances we do not need to clean our ears or take any kind of special measures to prevent an excess earwax buildup from happening.

This said, there are to be certain risk factors that will increase the possibility of excess earwax buildups occurring. Regular use of earbuds or in-ear headphones, which accompany the ubiquitous smart phones, media players and portable gaming devices, results in a higher chance of excess earwax. The same is true for children who use hearing aids. Children with Down syndrome are also predisposed to earwax buildup as they often have narrow ear canals.

While some of these factors are truly unfortunate and unavoidable, others can be limited or avoided altogether. Taking your child to the pediatrician for regular checks and cleaning, if needed, or preventative use of earwax-softening drops every so often will also help to avoid buildup problems.

Helpful Information

Good to know facts and tidbits about earwax:

  • Humans produce two distinct types of earwax – wet and dry. They differ in color and texture. Wet is the prevalent type, most common in people of European or African descent, ranging from honey-brown, dark orange to dark brown in color and has a moist, sticky texture. Dry earwax in general is less common, but it is the dominant type in East Asia. Dry earwax is usually gray-colored.  The two types differ from each other biochemically and a single gene determines which type of earwax a person has. Knowing your kid’s type will help you spot any changes.
  • Children with diabetes or immune system disorders are more at risk of ear infections and should avoid ear irrigation procedures. Children with hemophilia or other bleeding disorders should not be subjected to manual earwax removal, as there is a risk of rupturing the skin.
  • Never use ear candling to remove the earwax, the practice is not supported by any scientific data, it is both ineffective and dangerous, risking severe burn damage by handling a lit candle so close to a person’s face.
  • Limit your children, and yourself for that matter, from using in-ear headphones and rather buy over the ear type, which reduce potential hearing loss and earwax buildup.
  • If in any doubt how to address your child’s earwax problem, always consult a pediatrician or a general physician.