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Does wearing ear plugs disrupt the natural ear cleaning process?

Dear Alice,

I am a very light sleeper so I began wearing ear plugs to be able to sleep uninterruptedly. I moved into a quieter neighborhood now and thought that I would be able to sleep without them but it turns out that my boyfriend is a snorer and so I have to keep wearing them. I know that ears clean themselves out at night but because I'm wearing the ear plugs I have a lot of wax build-up. How can I clean my ears? And also, do you think that prolonged use of ear plugs can cause some kind of damage?

Concerned

Dear Concerned, 

You're right that ears have their own self-cleaning process to prevent wax buildup. Earwax—also known as cerumen—is made up of secretions from glands, skin cells, and hairs that have bacteria. Having some earwax in your ear can be beneficial because it moisturizes the ear canal, protects from infection by trapping foreign particles, and acts as a barrier against water damage. While wearing ear plugs may help you get a better night's sleep, their presence may disrupt the natural ways that your body clears out earwax. This may contribute to a number of ear conditions, but many can be improved by removing the wax. When it comes to cleaning your ears, you may speak with a health care provider about using strategies such as hydrogen peroxide drops or by having it professionally removed. However, health care providers don't recommend using tools that may push the wax further into the ear canal or cause other damage to the ear, such as cotton swabs. Read on for more ear-resistible information! 

The natural ear cleaning process can occur at any time during the day or night. It's driven by jaw movements and skin growth. When the jaw moves, it can push the wax outward. Additionally, when skin grows, it moves the old earwax out. Once the wax is at the opening of the ear, it typically falls out or is washed away in the shower. Some people may have more earwax build-up than others, so a health care provider may recommend that they clean their ears out on their own or with a health care provider. 

Things such as impacted earwax, hearing aids, earplugs, or earphones block the wax’s natural exit route and the self-cleaning process. Prolonged wax build-up can lead to serious health conditions, including: 

  • Earwax impaction: Earwax can build up for a variety of reasons, including excessive ear cleaning, anatomy, regular use of earplugs or other objects, and build-up of hair in the ear canal. Symptoms typically present as hearing loss, a feeling of fullness, itching, dizziness, or vertigo. 
  • Otitis externa: This is when the ear canal becomes inflamed causing pain or discomfort. Some people may also feel itching, fullness, or even have trouble hearing. Risk factors include young age, genetics, seasonal changes, trauma to the ear, excessive ear cleaning, regular swimming, and foreign bodies. 
  • Ear and sinus barotrauma: Ear damage can occur when there are pressure differences from inside and outside of the ear. These differences can cause gas or air to be trapped. Symptoms typically present as hearing loss, headache, vertigo, nausea, and tinnitus. Risk factors include inflammation in the nose, chronic ear infections, impacted earwax caused by foreign bodies or an anatomical obstruction, chronic sinus infections, and pregnancy. 

Luckily, if the cause of your ear condition is due to wax buildup, removing it often relieves the symptoms. If symptoms aren’t relieved or the earwax buildup can’t be removed, a health care provider may recommend or prescribe additional treatments such as antibiotics, antifungals, pain medications, topical steroids, decongestants, or antihistamines depending on the underlying cause of the condition. 

In addition to finding ways to treat your ears, you may also try alternatives that don't require the use of earplugs. Some alternative methods may include listening to white, pink, or brown noise or using sleeping headphones that go over the ear. You might also try sleeping in another room or going to sleep before your partner to avoid their snoring altogether. If you do decide to continue using earplugs, feel free to check out how to wear soft foam earplugs to ensure proper usage. 

Finding ways to maintain your ear health will keep them in better shape as you navigate the noise challenges. That said, another way to address these concerns may be to help your boyfriend find relief with snoring. Snoring can be a symptom of several serious medical conditions, such as sleep apnea. Getting him an appointment with a sleep specialist may help him get to the root of why he snores and help you both to get a little better shut eye.

Happy sleeping, 

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Last updated Jan 26, 2024
Originally published Nov 26, 2004