Everything you need to know about earwax
Earwax is the yellowish substance that is secreted in the ear canal. Its purpose is to protect the ear canal, prevent infections, and block foreign bodies. However, too much earwax is not good for the ear canal and can even lead to more serious problems like hearing loss.
While there are natural causes of excess earwax, there are certain steps and precautions you can take to reduce the chances of it damaging your hearing. But first, it is important to answer the question, “What is earwax?”
What is earwax?
The clinical term for earwax is cerumen, and it is a naturally occurring substance in the human body. It is usually a dark shade of yellow, and it consists of long-chain fatty acids, keratin, cholesterol, alcohols and squalene. The exact composition of cerumen differs from person to person.
According to Clearearinc.com, there are two types of ear wax in humans. The most prevalent type is referred to as “wet earwax”, which is the most common type among Africans and Europeans. Asians, Pacific Islanders, and Native Americans tend to have dry earwax, which may be a result of living in much colder climates. The wet variety tends to be sticky and a yellowish-brown color, while dry earwax is often grey and flaky.
Commonly asked questions about earwax
Every person produces earwax. Without it, your ear canals can’t function properly. However, too much of it can cause problems. If you think you have excessive earwax, there are a few key facts you need to know. For instance, you should know how to safely remove earwax at home, and what to expect if you need to go to the hospital.
What Causes Excess Earwax?
Some people produce more earwax than others. However, according to the NHS, there are other factors that can play a part, including the production of particularly hard wax, age, bony growths in the outer ear, and having narrow or hairy ear canals.
A lot of people make the mistake of cleaning out the wax in their ears with Q-tips. This method can help remove small pieces of excess earwax, but it could also push wax deeper into the ear canal — making it much more difficult to remove.
Spotting the signs of excessive earwax
The NHS website lists several symptoms of excess earwax build-up. You may be experiencing one or all of these symptoms, but it is important not to jump to conclusions or self-diagnose. Only a doctor will be able to give you an accurate diagnosis.
The symptoms relating to excess earwax build-up include:
- Hearing loss
- Itchiness — in or around the ear
- Tinnitus — hissing or whistling sounds coming from within your head
- Vertigo — dizziness or a spinning sensation
- Ear infections
How do you clean excess earwax?
Earwax is a protective substance, so it is good to have a healthy amount in your ear canals. If earwax is causing any of the symptoms listed above, there are a few preventative measures you can take.
According to WebMD, mineral oil and a solution of warm water and a little hydrogen peroxide can help. But keep in mind, you should not do anything until you have consulted your doctor. Avoid the temptation to use Q-tips to remove earwax, as they can push it further into your ear. Also, try to keep hygiene products like shampoo out of your ears.
To prevent wax build-up, WebMD also suggests that you keep your ears dry. When you are rinsing your hair, for instance, angle your head to ensure the water flows away from your ears. After swimming, shake your head to remove any water from your ear canals. Of course, you can’t always avoid getting water in your ear canals, but you can reduce the chances of significant accumulations of wax. So make sure you dry your ears with the corner of a towel or a hair dryer.
How is excess earwax removed?
According to the NHS website, there are four main treatments offered to patients with a severe earwax accumulation.
- Eardrops — This is the most common treatment for earwax build-ups. The drops are applied several times a day until the wax softens and falls out on its own.
- Ear irrigation — Water is pushed into the ear with an electric pump to flush the wax out.
- Aural toilet — Wax is “scraped” from the ear canal with a thin instrument.
- Microsuction — A special suction device is used to suck the wax from the ear canal.
Interesting facts about earwax
- It cleans our ears — Earwax keeps our ears clean, so there’s usually no need to use anything else. The simple act of talking and chewing ensures wax moves from the inner ear to the opening.
- Don’t take wax removal into your own hands — Trying to fish wax out yourself can make the problem worse.
- Never use “candling” as a wax removal method— So-called “candling” involves the use of a long, cone-shaped candle, which is inserted into the ear and lit. This method is not effective and is very dangerous.
What are the diseases related to the build-up of earwax?
Too much earwax in your ear canal can cause one or all of the symptoms listed above, including varying degrees of hearing loss, tinnitus, earache and vertigo. If left untreated for a period of time, impacted wax can also lead to infections.
According to the Irish Health Service Executive, otitis externa (inflammation of the external ear canal) is a relatively rare condition that can be caused by excess earwax. Otitis media is a middle ear infection that can sometimes result from large accumulations of impacted earwax. In very serious cases, a perforated eardrum or damage to the external auditory meatus can occur.
Before you do anything, ask your doctor: how should you remove excess earwax safely? You want to make sure you use the right methods and avoid doing anything that can make the problem worse. The treatment you are offered will depend on several factors, such as the amount of wax in your ear, the type of wax, and how deep it lies inside your ear canal.
In most cases, the body does a very good job of expelling excess earwax on its own. However, when the situation becomes more serious, medical intervention may be required in order to stop hearing loss and a range of other related problems.