Background: Build-up of earwax is a common reason for attendance in primary care. Current practice for earwax removal generally involves the use of a softening agent, followed by irrigation of the ear if required. However, the safety and benefits of the different methods of removal are not known for certain.
Objectives: To conduct evidence synthesis of the clinical effectiveness and cost-effectiveness of the interventions currently available for softening and/or removing earwax and any adverse events (AEs) associated with the interventions.
Data sources: Eleven electronic resources were searched from inception to November 2008, including: The Cochrane Library; MEDLINE (OVID), PREMEDLINE In-Process & Other Non-Indexed Citations (OVID), EMBASE (OVID); and CINAHL.
Methods: Two reviewers screened titles and abstracts for eligibility. Inclusion criteria were applied to the full text or retrieved papers and data were extracted by two reviewers using data extraction forms developed a priori. Any differences were resolved by discussion or by a third reviewer. Study criteria included: interventions - all methods of earwax removal available and combinations of these methods; participants - adults/children presenting requiring earwax removal; outcomes - measures of hearing, adequacy of clearance of wax, quality of life, time to recurrence or further treatment, AEs and measures of cost-effectiveness; design - randomised controlled trials (RCTs) and controlled clinical trials (CCTs) for clinical effectiveness, cohort studies for AEs and cost-effectiveness, and costing studies for cost-effectiveness. For the economic evaluation, a deterministic decision tree model was developed to evaluate three options: (1) the use of softeners followed by irrigation in primary care; (2) softeners followed by self-irrigation; and (3) a 'no treatment' option. Outcomes were assessed in terms of benefits to patients and costs incurred, with costs presented by exploratory cost-utility analysis.
Results: Twenty-six clinical trials conducted in primary care (14 studies), secondary care (8 studies) or other care settings (4 studies), met the inclusion criteria for the review - 22 RCTs and 4 CCTs. The range of interventions included 16 different softeners, with or without irrigation, and in various different comparisons. Participants, outcomes, timing of intervention, follow-up and methodological quality varied between studies. On measures of wax clearance Cerumol, sodium bicarbonate, olive oil and water are all more effective than no treatment; triethanolamine polypeptide (TP) is better than olive oil; wet irrigation is better than dry irrigation; sodium bicarbonate drops followed by irrigation by nurse is more effective than sodium bicarbonate drops followed by self-irrigation; softening with TP and self-irrigation is more effective than self-irrigation only; and endoscopic de-waxing is better than microscopic de-waxing. AEs appeared to be minor and of limited extent. Resuts of the exploratory economic model found that softeners followed by self-irrigation were more likely to be cost-effective [24,433 pounds per quality-adjusted life-year (QALY)] than softeners followed by irrigation at primary care (32,130 pounds per QALY) when compared with no treatment. Comparison of the two active treatments showed that the additional gain associated with softeners followed by irrigation at primary care over softeners followed by self-irrigation was at a cost of 340,000 pounds per QALY. When compared over a lifetime horizon to the 'no treatment' option, the ICERs for softeners followed by self-irrigation and of softeners followed by irrigation at primary care were 24,450 pounds per QALY and 32,136 pounds per QALY, respectively.
Limitations: The systematic review found limited good-quality evidence of the safety, benefits and costs of the different strategies, making it difficult to differentiate between the various methods for removing earwax and rendering the economic evaluation as speculative.
Conclusions: Although softeners are effective, which specific softeners are most effective remains uncertain. Evidence on the effectiveness of methods of irrigation or mechanical removal was equivocal. Further research is required to improve the evidence base, such as a RCT incorporating an economic evaluation to assess the different ways of providing the service, the effectiveness of the different methods of removal and the acceptability of the different approaches to patients and practitioners.