Keratosis obturans (KO) is the buildup of keratin in the ear canal. Keratin is a protein released by skin cells that form the hair, nails, and protective barrier on the skin.
The exact cause of KO is unknown. It may be due to a problem with how skin cells in the ear canal are produced. Or, it may be caused by overstimulation of the wax glands by the nervous system.
Symptoms may include:
- Mild to severe pain
- Reduced hearing ability
- Inflammation of ear canal
Exams and Tests
KO is usually treated by removing the buildup of material. Medicine is then applied to the ear canal.
Regular follow-ups and cleaning by your provider are important to avoid infections. In some people, lifetime cleaning may be needed.
When to Contact a Medical Professional
Contact your provider if you feel pain in the ear or difficulty in hearing.
Naples JG, Brant JA, Ruckenstein MJ. Infections of the external ear. In: Flint PW, Francis HW, Haughey BH, et al, eds. Cummings Otolaryngology: Head and Neck Surgery. 7th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2021:chap 138.
Ying YLM. Keratosis obturans and canal cholesteatoma. In: Myers EN, Snyderman CH, eds. Operative Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery. 3rd ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2018:chap 128.
Last reviewed on: 6/7/2023
Reviewed by: Elika Hoss, MD, Assistant Professor of Dermatology, Mayo Clinic, Scottsdale, AZ. Also reviewed by David C. Dugdale, MD, Medical Director, Brenda Conaway, Editorial Director, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.