(Almost) all you need to know about earwax
This normal and natural substance can sometimes become impacted
Of all the substances our bodies excrete, earwax has to be one of the most mysterious. What possible reason could our ears have for producing this waxy substance? Medical professionals may not yet completely understand all of its properties, but they are certain of its protective nature. To understand more, we’ve assembled some interesting facts about earwax—and why you shouldn’t be hasty to remove it.
What is earwax?
Earwax, known medically as cerumen, is a naturally occurring sticky substance in the outer ear. Earwax contains oil and sweat mixed with dirt and dead skin cells.
Why do people have earwax?
Earwax is natural and helpful
It’s hard to believe something so unappealing can be so important to your ears' good health, yet being sticky and smelly is exactly why a normal amount of ear wax is beneficial. Consider these attributes:
Why cleaning your ear canals is not necessary
Many people think you're supposed to clean your ear canals regularly, using things like cotton swabs. But this is almost always unnecessary and may cause more harm than good.
"An overly clean ear can be an unhealthy ear," according to an in-depth article on the harms of earwax cleaning by researcher and hearing instrument specialist, Max Stanley Chartrand, PhD. Anytime someone tries to clean their ear by inserting a finger or small object into their ears, they risk wedging earwax back into the skin, where it can harden and become problematic, even affecting your hearing, he explains.
Hearing aids and earwax
Professionally fitted hearing aids come with wax guards to keep wax from accumulating in your device. They need to be changed out regularly, usually monthly.
Also, it's important to clean your hearing aids daily. Always use a professional kit with tools made for your hearing aids, and not objects found around the home. Most kits come with a wax pick or wire loop for removing wax and debris.
If you suspect impacted earwax? Proceed with caution
Even though earwax has its benefits, blockages can occur, particularly if you tend to have dry, hard earwax. If you develop a sensation of stuffiness in your ears and suspect earwax is the culprit:
Signs you may have impacted earwax
Along with muffled hearing, an earwax impaction increases the volume of your own voice, so people with impacted earwax may speak very softly. The impaction also can also press upon the vagus nerve, triggering a chronic reflexive cough. Lastly, Chartrand explains, it can also make the eardrum spasm, leading to ringing in the ears that sounds like a roaring or buzzing sound.
Your earwax says a lot about you
Although most everyone’s ears produce earwax, that’s where the similarity ends. Its composition varies from person to person, depending on their ethnicity, environment, age and diet.
Two types of earwax
There are two primary types of earwax—wet and dry:
Normal earwax colors
Even the color of your cerumen can say a lot about you:
Diabetes and earwax
Interestingly, the pH of earwax in people with diabetes tends to be less acidic, according to practice guidelines published by the American Association of Family Physicians. This makes it less protective against germs, meaning people with diabetes should take extra care with their ears because they are at higher risk of ear infections.
The more you remove, the more your body will make
When you make a habit of removing earwax, that sends a signal to your body to make more, creating an excess which can interfere with hearing, put you at greater risk for developing ear infections and other complications.
Stress and fear can also accelerate earwax production. Others who have a tendency to produce too much earwax include those:
How to clean your ears
While your ears are self-cleaning, there are a few things you can do to keep them clean and free of excess debris: