Clinical practice guideline: cerumen impaction

Otolaryngol Head Neck Surg. 2008 Sep;139(3 Suppl 2):S1-S21. doi: 10.1016/j.otohns.2008.06.026.


Objective: This guideline provides evidence-based recommendations on managing cerumen impaction, defined as an accumulation of cerumen that causes symptoms, prevents assessment of the ear, or both. We recognize that the term "impaction" suggests that the ear canal is completely obstructed with cerumen and that our definition of cerumen impaction does not require a complete obstruction. However, cerumen impaction is the preferred term since it is consistently used in clinical practice and in the published literature to describe symptomatic cerumen or cerumen that prevents assessment of the ear. This guideline is intended for all clinicians who are likely to diagnose and manage patients with cerumen impaction.

Purpose: The primary purpose of this guideline is to improve diagnostic accuracy for cerumen impaction, promote appropriate intervention in patients with cerumen impaction, highlight the need for evaluation and intervention in special populations, promote appropriate therapeutic options with outcomes assessment, and improve counseling and education for prevention of cerumen impaction. In creating this guideline the American Academy of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery Foundation selected a panel representing the fields of audiology, family medicine, geriatrics, internal medicine, nursing, otolaryngology-head and neck surgery, and pediatrics.

Results: The panel made a strong recommendation that 1) clinicians should treat cerumen impaction that causes symptoms expressed by the patient or prevents clinical examination when warranted. The panel made recommendations that 1) clinicians should diagnose cerumen impaction when an accumulation of cerumen is associated with symptoms, or prevents needed assessment of the ear (the external auditory canal or tympanic membrane), or both; 2) clinicians should assess the patient with cerumen impaction by history and/or physical examination for factors that modify management, such as one or more of the following: nonintact tympanic membrane, ear canal stenosis, exostoses, diabetes mellitus, immunocompromised state, or anticoagulant therapy; 3) the clinician should examine patients with hearing aids for the presence of cerumen impaction during a healthcare encounter (examination more frequently than every three months, however, is not deemed necessary); 4) clinicians should treat the patient with cerumen impaction with an appropriate intervention, which may include one or more of the following: cerumenolytic agents, irrigation, or manual removal other than irrigation; and 5) clinicians should assess patients at the conclusion of in-office treatment of cerumen impaction and document the resolution of impaction. If the impaction is not resolved, the clinician should prescribe additional treatment. If full or partial symptoms persist despite resolution of impaction, alternative diagnoses should be considered. The panel offered as an option that 1) clinicians may observe patients with nonimpacted cerumen that is asymptomatic and does not prevent the clinician from adequately assessing the patient when an evaluation is needed; 2) clinicians may distinguish and promptly evaluate the need for intervention in the patient who may not be able to express symptoms but presents with cerumen obstructing the ear canal; 3) the clinician may treat the patient with cerumen impaction with cerumenolytic agents, irrigation, or manual removal other than irrigation; and 4) clinicians may educate/counsel patients with cerumen impaction/excessive cerumen regarding control measures.

Disclaimer: This clinical practice guideline is not intended as a sole source of guidance in managing cerumen impaction. Rather, it is designed to assist clinicians by providing an evidence-based framework for decision-making strategies. It is not intended to replace clinical judgment or establish a protocol for all individuals with this condition, and may not provide the only appropriate approach to diagnosing and managing this problem.

Publication types

  • Practice Guideline
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Cerumen / metabolism*
  • Curettage / methods
  • Ear Canal / metabolism*
  • Hearing Loss / prevention & control*
  • Humans
  • Therapeutic Irrigation / methods
  • Treatment Outcome