Most people’s ear wax is yellow or brown in colour and is usually sticky in consistency. This is healthy earwax.

However, earwax can change its colour and texture depending on certain things going on inside your ears. Below, we’ve got a guide to what the differences might mean for your health and if you need to act on it.

You cannot prevent earwax from building up in your ear canals. It’s there to protect your ears from dirt, germs and infections. Occasionally, our ears may go into overdrive and produce a bit too much wax which might need to be cleared to avoid any hearing issues but this is no longer available on the NHS.

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Mostly though, you can usually leave your ears to get on with the job themselves as they are pretty efficient. According to Healthline, our ears our self-cleaning and naturally chuck out old earwax, along with dead skin cells. Below we have listed the different types of earwax and what they mean for your health.

  • Soft and yellow wax is freshly made and healthy earwax. Darker shades of yellow (with a more tar-like consistency) is still healthy but shows signs it has been there for a while.
  • Flaky and pale wax is a sign of that self-cleaning at work. This is often found outside the canal and has been pushed out by the ear. People with skin conditions, such as eczema or psoriasis, often have earwax of this colour.
  • Black wax might send alarm bells ringing at first sight but it’s probably more common than you think. This change can signal an earwax build-up that hasn’t been cleared naturally. Put simply, the blackening wax has been oxidised after sitting in the ear too long and has been exposed to the air and natural bacterial fermentation. For people using hearing aids, black earwax is a common occurrence.
  • Redness in the wax could be a sign of blood in the ear. As the ear canal contains many blood vessels, it could be just a scratch but it could also be a sign of an ear infection. If you have naturally dark earwax it can be hard to tell whether there’s any blood present. In this case, just put some earwax on a tissue and squeeze. You should then see the underlying colour more easily. If you’re concerned about blood in your earwax, you should get your ears checked by an audiologist.
  • Probably more concerning than black and red is finding green earwax. This is usually a sign of an infection, most probably a middle ear infection, especially if this green discharge is accompanied by an unpleasant smell. To check if your green earwax is caused by an infection, make an appointment with your GP, who will probably treat it with antibiotic ear drops or a course of oral antibiotics.

Four symptoms of earwax build-up to be aware of

The NHS lists four main symptoms of earwax build-up. These are:

  • Hearing loss
  • Earache or a feeling that your ears are blocked
  • A ringing or buzzing in your ears, also known as tinnitus
  • vertigo (feeling dizzy or nauseous)

Three conditions associated with earwax

  • Swimmer’s ear, officially called otitis externa, is a condition that causes the external ear canal to swell and redden and is often painful. The condition is known as swimmer’s ear because repeated exposure to water can make the ear canal more vulnerable to inflammation, the NHS reports. One of the main symptoms of swimmer’s ear is a build-up of earwax, discharge from the ear, pain, itchiness and temporary hearing loss.
  • Otosclerosis is a problem with the bones inside your ear which causes gradual hearing loss. While this condition doesn’t necessarily cause excessive ear wax, some patients often mistake their symptoms for earwax build-up and ignore them until they begin to lose their hearing. The condition occurs when a tiny bone inside your ear, called the stapes, joins (fuses) with other parts of the ear and stops you from being able to hear properly. According to the NHS, you should see a GP if you think your hearing is getting worse, or if you have tinnitus regularly.

  • Lupus is a long-term condition that causes joint pain, skin rashes, and tiredness. The condition can also cause headaches, mouth ulcers, hair loss, weight loss, chest or tummy pain, and depression. It may also cause excessive earwax because of inflammation that can extend to the ears.

How to deal with earwax build-up yourself

The NHS states that earwax usually falls out on its own, and you should absolutely never use your fingers or other objects such as cotton buds to remove earwax, as this will push it further in and make the problem worse.

Instead, you should try treating your earwax build-up with olive oil drops or almond oil drops. To do this, lie on your side with the affected ear facing up, then put 2-3 drops of your chosen oil in your ear. Continue to lie on your side for 5-10 minutes after putting the oil in, and repeat these steps 3-4 times a day for 3-5 days.

“Over about two weeks, lumps of earwax should fall out of your ear and your symptoms should improve,” the NHS says, “There’s no evidence that ear candles or ear vacuums get rid of earwax.”

The Royal National Institute for Deaf People (RNID) said last week that there was “no medical reason” for the NHS to have withdrawn services across parts of England since 2019, and warned that those who can’t afford private treatment were turning to self-removal methods considered to be “dangerous”.

The NHS has more advice and guidance concerning earwax on its website.