This normal and natural substance can sometimes become impacted
Contributed by Debbie Clason, staff writer, Healthy Hearing Last updated 2023-12-14T00:00:00-06:00
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, here's what to keep in mind:
If you have earwax blockage
What to do
Buy an over-the-counter ear cleaning kit if your ears are healthy. These are available at drugstores.
Ask a doctor for help if you have ear tubes (used to treat chronic middle ear infections) or if you have any ear pain. Earwax buildup is not painful.
Consider professional ear cleaning (in some cases): Some hearing care providers offer professional ear cleaning using tools like the Earigator. This is not necessary nor a good idea for most people, but it's easy for doctors to look in the ears using an otoscope to check for impacted earwax.
What not to do
Do not insert a cotton swab, hairpin or any sharp instrument in an attempt to remove wax yourself. This can push the wax deeper into the ear canal where it is unable to be sloughed off naturally, or you could even puncture your eardrum.
Do not try ear candling. Besides having no proven benefits, ear candling can cause burns, wax blockage, punctured eardrums and serious injury. Instead, follow general rules for keeping ears clean (see below).
Signs you may have impacted earwax
Not sure if you have impacted earwax? Here are some signs to look out for:
Tinnitus that sounds like roaring or buzzing
The sound of your voice seems louder
You're coughing for no apparent reason (the impaction also can press on the vagus nerve, triggering a chronic reflexive cough).
Why cleaning deep in your ears can cause problems
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.
Anytime you insert a finger or small object into your ear, you risk wedging earwax back into the skin, where it can harden and become problematic. This can even affecting your hearing, according to an article by hearing instrument specialist, Max Stanley Chartrand, PhD.
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.
How to safely 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:
Wash your ears using a warm, soapy wash cloth. Letting warm water from your daily shower run over (but not in) your ears every so often is probably enough to soften and loosen excess earwax.
If you're older than 60, have your hearing evaluated periodically by a hearing healthcare professional. Ask your family physician for a referral, or search our online directory to find hearing clinics near you. Besides advising you on your hearing health, they will be able to detect excess cerumen and may safely remove it.
See a doctor immediately if your home treatments don't help or if you experience sudden hearing loss, pain or bleeding.
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:
Earwax is a natural barrier that prevents dirt and bacteria from entering the innermost parts of your ears. Because it is sticky, it collects microscopic debris that finds its way into your ear canal, much like fly paper traps insects. Without this defensive barrier, your inner ear would be at risk.
It acts as a moisturizer and protective coating for your ear canal. Without earwax, your outer ear might be itchy and flaky, which puts it at greater risk for becoming irritated and infected.
It acts as an insect repellent. The smell of earwax keeps bugs away, while the stickiness traps those that accidentally venture inside. (Yep, bugs and plenty of other things can get stuck inside your ear.)
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.
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:
Wet cerumen is more common in Caucasians and Africans
Dry cerumen is more common among Native Americans, Pacific Islanders and Asians
Normal earwax colors
Even the color of your cerumen can say a lot about you:
Dark brown or black colored earwax is typically older, so its color comes from the dirt and bacteria it has trapped. Adults tend to have darker, harder earwax.
Dark brown earwax that is tinged with red may signal a bleeding injury.
Light brown, orange or yellow earwax is healthy and normal. Children tend to have softer, lighter-colored earwax.
White, flaky earwax indicates you lack a body-odor producing chemical. Dark-colored, sticky earwax indicates you should probably use deodorant.
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.
Stress and fear can accelerate earwax production. Others who have a tendency to produce too much earwax include those:
with a lot of hair in their ear canals.
who suffer from chronic ear infections.
who have abnormally-formed ear canals or osteomata, which is extra bone tissue,
who are elderly, have certain skin conditions or certain learning disabilities.
Earwax removal near you
Many hearing care professionals can remove troublesome earwax. Search our directory to find a provider near you who offers this service.
Debbie Clason, staff writer, Healthy Hearing
Debbie Clason holds a master's degree from Indiana University. Her impressive client list includes financial institutions, real estate developers, physicians, pharmacists and nonprofit organizations.
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