Most of the time your ears are self-cleaning but sometimes they get dirty, or the earwax can build up in them, and then it is good to know how to tell if your ears need cleaning. Earwax has antibacterial properties so it actually prevents dirt, dust and bacteria from entering your ears. Additionally, earwax naturally works its way out of your ear canals, where it dries and falls out. In theory, your ears are self-cleaning and you shouldn’t have to clean out your earwax, but inevitably sometimes the earwax gets stuck in the ear canal or it clogs it up completely so it needs to be cleaned out.

How to tell if your ears need cleaning

There are a couple signs that your ears need cleaning - usually an itch, ache, ringing or a clog (hearing loss). 

Signs that your ears need cleaning

Our ears are very sensitive instruments so it doesn’t take a doctor visit to tell you when they feel “off.” The most common symptom of dirty ears is an itch, but you might also experience an ache, loss of hearing or a ringing sound. If you are asking how do you know if your ears need cleaning, then you are likely experiencing one of these symptoms.

What are some methods to look inside your own ears at home?

The best way to look inside your own ears at home is with a digital otoscope. This is the easiest way to know how to tell if you need your ears cleaned and it is much easier than going to a doctor. A traditional otoscope is basically a magnifying glass with a handle, a light, and a cone-shaped tip that is inserted into the outer section of the ear canal. Digital otoscopes either magnify the image for your phone's camera, or act as their own magnifying camera, and record video.

How to see inside your own ear canal using an otoscope

Digital otoscopes are simple to use. They should include a plastic speculum - a cone shaped device that prevents the otoscope from being over inserted. Insert the otoscope with a speculum attached no more than 2 cm (0.79 in) into your ear. No matter if you're using a traditional otoscope or a smartphone attachment, never stick the speculum (the pointed part) more than 1–2 cm (0.39–0.79 in) into your ear. Your inner ear is very sensitive, and you definitely don't want to damage your eardrum. Since you can’t examine your own ear with a traditional otoscope we recommend a digital one so you can view the image on a screen in front of you.

Is it safe to look inside your own ears?

It is safe so long as you follow the instructions and don’t scratch your ear canal or contact your ear drum. This is why it’s so important to see what you are doing and also why so many doctors caution against using cotton swabs to clean your ears. How do you know if you need your ears cleaned? Use a digital otoscope first to look and see if you need to clean out some wax.

How to clean your ears when they are clogged

There are several methods on the market if you are searching for how to clean your ears when they are clogged. The most common way is with a cotton swab, or Q-Tip. Swabs can work but they are NOT recommended because they usually push the wax in deeper as opposed to pulling it out and they don’t give you a good view of what you are doing so injury to your eardrum is likely. Earwax candles also get talked about frequently, but they have been proven to be ineffective and can also cause burns if handled carelessly. Other tools for ear cleaning include curettes, but these really are only safe in the hands of a medical professional - do you want to be poking around blindly in your ear with a sharp metal tool? Don’t use these unless you have proper training. The best tool for clearing a clogged ear that we have found is a digital otoscope. Digital otoscopes have a camera in the tip to see inside your ear canal and small, soft earwax spoons to pull the earwax out of your ear canal. They help you keep a safe distance from your eardrum and also remove the earwax effectively.

When should you go to a doctor?

If too much earwax builds up in your ear canal and starts to cause extreme symptoms or it prevents you from seeing down your ear canal, you might have something called cerumen impaction. This means earwax has completely filled your ear canal.

The symptoms of cerumen impaction are:

  • Pain or a feeling of fullness in your ear
  • Feeling like your ear is plugged
  • Partial loss of hearing, which worsens over time
  • Ringing in your ear, known as tinnitus
  • Itching, discharge, or a smell coming from your ear
  • Coughing

This kind of earwax buildup is rare, but it can happen. If you’re experiencing any of the symptoms listed above, don’t assume earwax is the problem. Call your doctor. They can examine your ears and figure out the cause.

Conclusion

Ultimately, most ear symptoms are mild and can be tended to at home with the right tools. Digital otoscopes are the best tool for knowing how to tell if you need your ears cleaned because they let you actually see inside your own ear canal safely. If you have extreme symptoms then you should consult with a medical professional to determine the best treatment.