Baby's Earwax Buildup

A buildup of earwax in baby's ears can certainly be unpleasant, and it can be difficult to determine when to take action for a serious condition. We've asked a few experts to explain what earwax is, how it's helpful to your baby, and when to call the doctor.

What Is Earwax?

Earwax, or cerumen, is made up of dead skin cells and a thick, sticky material produced by glands lining the ear. Though it may be bothersome, it is a completely normal part of your baby's physiology, and it can even keep her ears healthy.

"Earwax provides a barrier against water in the external canal in addition to having microbes that prevent infection," said Hai Cao, M.D., a pediatrician in Brooklyn. "[Some] babies tend to have dry, flaxy wax, while other kids tend to have sticky wax. Either is normal and does not require medical intervention."

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How Much Earwax Is Normal?

If you're wondering how much earwax is normal, there is no typical amount. It's common to see some wax in one of your child's ears, and one ear may even have more wax than the other. There is no rhyme or reason regarding what constitutes a normal amount of earwax.

"As long as the pediatrician can see through the wax and visualize the eardrum, it is still ok," says Dyan Hes, M.D., medical director of Gramercy Pediatrics and clinical assistant professor of pediatrics at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York City. "If the earwax is blocking the entire canal, then it is a problem."

What Causes Earwax Buildup?

Ears generate wax all the time, says David L. Hill, M.D., a pediatrician and author of Dad To Dad: Parenting Like A Pro. Normally, earwax is carried out of the ear canal by the microscopic, hairlike structures called cilia, and by the gradual outward growth of the skin inside the ear. A buildup of wax can occur when well-meaning parents attempt to clean a baby's ear with cotton swabs, which can actually force the wax back inside the ear and create a blockage.

How Can Earwax Buildup Be Treated?

Because a cotton swab is often what causes a wax buildup in the first place, parents should never use one to clean a baby's ear canals, Dr. Hill says. Instead, wash baby's outer ear gently with a washcloth and leave the canal alone; it's very rare for earwax to build up when cotton swabs are not being used. If you don't use cotton swabs but are still seeing a wax buildup in baby's ear, Dr. Hill recommends using an over-the-counter eardrop (like Debrox) to soften the wax and help it come out on its own.

It is important to note that having earwax does not lead to increased ear infections, nor does getting bathwater temporarily in the ear canal, says Dr. Cao.

When Does Earwax Buildup Become Serious?

A buildup can become serious when wax traps water in the external ear canal or when baby's hearing becomes compromised, Dr. Hes says. If your child is not responding to sounds appropriately or is experiencing pain, or if you see a copious amount of earwax coming out of the canal, seek medical advice about removing the earwax.

A pediatrician may use a surgical tool called a curette to scrape and clean out the earwax. If the wax is too deep or too hard to remove, earwax-softening drops may be recommended. After a week or so, the pediatrician will remove or flush out the baby's earwax with warm water and hydrogen peroxide.

But if the wax is particularly stubborn, your pediatrician may refer you to a pediatric otolaryngologist (an ear, nose, and throat specialist for children) who can vacuum the earwax out.

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