Earwax that smells and smell behind ear: causes and treatments

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Smelly earwax can result from various factors, including infection, ear obstructions, or underlying medical conditions. Determining the cause of the odor is crucial for appropriate treatment.

Earwax serves as a natural and vital component in maintaining ear health and cleanliness. Yet, when earwax emits an unpleasant odor, it signals a potential issue. If you notice earwax that smells, it could indicate an underlying medical condition or complication.

Smell behind ears and its causes

Various factors can contribute to a smell behind the ear, such as poor hygiene, seborrheic dermatitis, infections, and more. Treatment options may vary depending on the underlying cause.

Due to the hidden nature of the area behind the ears, individuals may overlook cleaning it or examining it for signs of irritation or infection.

Several relatively minor issues, including seborrheic dermatitis (a type of eczema), poor hygiene, piercing infections, yeast infections, and infections from cuts or injuries, can result in a smell behind the ears. However, in most cases, a smell behind the ears does not indicate a serious problem. With proper treatment and increased attention to the area, it is usually possible to get rid of it.

How to get rid of cheese smell behind ears

Combatting a cheese smell behind the ears can be done easily. Start by washing the area with warm water and mild soap, then dry thoroughly. Apply diluted apple cider vinegar or tea tree oil with a cotton ball to fight odor-causing bacteria. Ensure regular hygiene by keeping the area clean and dry. With these steps, you'll quickly banish the odor and feel fresh again.

Why does earwax smell?

What causes earwax to smell? The reasons why your warwax smells can be a lot, indeed, the bad odor may depend on various factors, often accompanied by other symptoms, aiding in identifying the root issue. Here is a list of the most comon causes:

  • Excessive Earwax: Overproduction of earwax can lead to blockage, resulting in a foul odor. Symptoms may include earache, hearing difficulties, and drainage.
  • Ear Infection: Typically occurring in the middle ear, infections can be bacterial or viral, causing pain and drainage with a noticeable odor. Children may also exhibit ear pain, irritability, and fever.
  • Foreign Object: Objects or insects stuck in the ear can cause pain, hearing loss, and infection, along with smelly earwax.
  • Swimmer’s Ear: Moisture retained in the ear post-swimming can lead to infection, presenting symptoms like itching, redness, and foul-smelling discharge.
  • Cholesteatoma: Noncancerous skin growths behind the eardrum, often associated with repeated ear infections, may produce smelly earwax along with pressure, earaches, and balance issues.
  • Ear Cancer: While rare, ear cancer can manifest with symptoms such as ear discharge, pain, hearing loss, facial weakness, or lumps.

Identifying accompanying symptoms can aid in determining the underlying cause of smelly earwax, prompting appropriate treatment.

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What is earwax supposed to smell like?

Earwax, much like its different textures, can have various smells, almost like a mixtape of scents. Let's delve into what these different aromas might indicate.

Firstly, there's the "normal" earwax smell, which may possess a slightly sweet or musty aroma. This earwax that smells sweet often indicates the diligent maintenance of ear hygiene, ensuring cleanliness and health.

Then, we encounter the "strong" or "sour" fragrance of earwax, which may suggest increased perspiration, often observed following vigorous physical activity or prolonged exertion. Earwax that smells like vinegar serves as an indicator of the day's exertions and effort.

Lastly, there's the "unpleasant" or "bad" earwax smell. This could be a sign that something is off in your ear, such as an infection or excessive buildup. So, if your earwax smells sweet, it's usually all good, but if it's more on the sour or bad side, it might be time to get it checked out.

Is earwax supposed to smell?

The question of whether earwax is meant to have a scent often piques curiosity. So, is earwax supposed to smell? While the scent of earwax can vary from person to person, a faint odor is normal due to its composition, which includes dead skin cells, hair, and secretions from glands in the ear canal. However, a strong or foul odor may indicate an underlying issue, such as infection or poor hygiene. Understanding the nuances of earwax and its aroma is crucial in maintaining ear health and addressing any potential concerns promptly.

Bad smelling earwax

The presence of foul-smelling earwax often raises concerns about ear health. Poor hygiene, infections like otitis externa, and medical conditions such as sinus infections or eczema can contribute to this issue. Lifestyle factors like smoking can worsen the problem. Identifying the root cause of bad-smelling earwax is essential for seeking appropriate medical treatment and maintaining ear health.

Remedies for smelling earwax

Consider these home remedies for smelly earwax, depending on its cause:

Excessive earwax:

  • Soften the wax with baby oil, hydrogen peroxide, glycerin, or mineral oil using an eyedropper.
  • After a few days, use a rubber syringe to gently spray warm water into your ear, tilting your head to allow the water to drain out.
  • Dry your outer ear gently with a towel or blow-dryer.
  • Avoid ear candling, as it is ineffective and may cause harm.

If home treatment doesn't resolve the issue, consult your doctor, who may remove the wax using a curet, suction, water pick, or rubber-bulb syringe.

Ear infection: If you suspect an ear infection, seek medical attention, especially if symptoms persist for more than a day or include severe pain or discharge. Treatment may include pain medication, warm compresses, or antibiotics. If an object is visible and near the surface, your doctor may remove it with tweezers or use a rubber-bulb syringe to flush it out with warm water. For insects trapped in the ear, try using warm olive oil, baby oil, mineral oil or essential oils to facilitate removal.

Swimmer's ear: Swimmer's ear requires medical treatment, which may involve cleaning the ear and prescribing medication for infection or pain. To aid healing, avoid swimming, flying, or using hearing aids, earplugs, or headphones until cleared by your doctor. Prevent water from entering your ear during bathing or showering, and use a cotton ball with petroleum jelly to keep your ear dry.

Cholesteatoma: If you suspect a cholesteatoma, consult your doctor for treatment, which may include antibiotics, eardrops, and meticulous ear cleaning. Surgery may be necessary if initial treatments fail.

Ear cancer: Treatment for ear cancer typically involves surgery, radiotherapy, and chemotherapy under the guidance of a medical professional.

If home remedies don’t clear up your earwax issue in a couple of days and your smelly earwax is accompanied by other symptoms, check in with your doctor.

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Other earwax parameters for auditory health

Earwax can provide valuable insights into our health. Excessive or foul-smelling earwax may necessitate a visit to a specialist for earwax removal. However, in addition to odor, it is possible to analyze other parameters of one's earwax that may indicate if your auditory health is good or bad. Earwax can be of various types, present different colors and textures: 

Types of earwax

Dry earwax resembles a crumbly rock, often found in individuals from East Asia. Wet earwax is sticky and slimy, commonly seen in people of African and European descent. Flaky earwax combines features of both dry and wet types, sometimes appearing as tiny flakes or peeling skin. Sticky earwax is the stickiest variant, akin to glue, serving to maintain ear cleanliness and health. 

Color variations of earwax

Yellow earwax is the most common and indicates normal functioning. Brown earwax signals aging and suggests the need for cleaning. Black earwax, although alarming, is usually a result of accumulated dirt or age. White earwax, the rarest color, signifies effective cleaning and maintenance.

Texture of earwax

Soft earwax is easily removable and light-colored, resembling a fluffy cloud. Hard earwax is darker and more challenging to extract, akin to a rock. Flaky earwax appears as dry skin fragments, potentially indicating insufficient wax production.
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