Facts About Ear Wax You Should Know

Earwax is something we all have, but something not many people know much about. That doesn’t stop people from inserting a finger or cotton swab into their ear to clean it, not knowing this could be doing more harm than good. While we might not like it sitting in our ears, earwax plays a key role in looking after our ears and keeping them clean and healthy. But a build-up of excess earwax can become problematic, causing infections and even hearing loss. When this happens, you must know just what to do to ensure you don’t damage your ears.

What is earwax and where does it come from?

Earwax or cerumen is a natural waxy oil substance produced by the body to keep the ears clean. It traps substances like dirt and dust and stops any debris from getting further into the ear which can be harmful to your ear. It’s made up of skin cells, sebum and secretions from the ceruminous glands in the outer ear canal. As new skin grows inside the ear canal, the old earwax is pushed from inside the ear canal closer to the opening, where it eventually flakes off or washes away when you have a bath or shower. Sometimes you may see some earwax near the opening and there’s nothing wrong with that.

Is brown a normal colour for earwax?

You may have noticed that the colour of your earwax is different from other people’s. But that’s not anything to worry about. Earwax can be brown, red or even black. It all depends on your body chemistry when it’s combined with oxidation.

Do my ears clean themselves?

Our ears are self-cleaning, largely thanks to earwax. As it drains through the ear canal, it traps dirt, dust and any foreign particles lurking there. It also protects your ears from infection by trapping bacteria and microorganisms. The wax and debris eventually work its way to the outer ear. As you move your jaw when you chew or talk, the earwax will gradually move from the eardrum to the opening of the ear, dry up and fall out.

Why do ears become blocked?

Sometimes if the ear’s self-cleaning process hasn’t been effective enough, too much earwax can accumulate and either partly or fully block the ear canal. This can lead to temporary hearing loss or infection. Impacted earwax can happen when too much oil has been produced by the ear canal glands and it hardens. Excessive cleaning of the ear, especially when using something like an ear swab, can also irritate the ear canal and push earwax deeper into the ear. Regularly using earplugs, earphones and wearing a hearing aid can also add to this problem. Other causes of earwax blockage can include:

  • Skin conditions inside the ear such as eczema
  • Narrow or very hairy ear canals
  • Infections in the ear
  • Bony obstructions such as osteoma or exostosis

How do you know if you have an earwax blockage?

One of the most common signs that you have impacted earwax that’s blocking your ears is hearing loss. The degree of hearing loss can vary, but for older people blocked ears are the most common cause of temporary conductive hearing loss. Impacted earwax can also cause tinnitus (ringing in the ears), earache and a feeling that your ears are plugged or full. Although a key job of earwax is to trap bacteria in your ear to stop it infecting your ear, once the earwax becomes impacted there is a risk that you could get an infection. This could lead to symptoms like:

  • Persistent earache
  • Dizziness
  • Cough
  • Ear discharge
  • Ear odor
  • Fever
  • Itchy ears

If you have hearing loss, fever, earache or dizziness this may not be as a result of a blocked ear. If you experience any of these symptoms or are concerned about your ears, then contact your doctor for advice.

When is it OK to remove earwax?

In most cases, when there is earwax near the outer part of your ear, you can simply wipe this away with a damp cloth. But if you suspect that your ears might be blocked with earwax and especially if you are experiencing adverse symptoms, then you should have the earwax removed by your doctor.

It is now possible to buy treatments that you can take home to remove the earwax yourself. However, if the person with the blocked ears is a child, then you should steer clear of removing the wax yourself as you risk damaging their young ears and could cause them to have hearing loss. Ask your doctor to remove it instead.

How is earwax removed?

If you think you have excess earwax or your ears have become blocked, then ask your doctor to clear it for you. They will remove the earwax safely and effectively. Your doctor may irrigate your ear, use a suction device or a small curved instrument to scoop out the wax.

If you want to remove the earwax yourself, then you need to be extremely careful. You should never insert anything into your ears, especially not cotton swabs or even fingers. Cotton swabs should only be used to gently wipe the outer part of your ear and never inserted into the delicate ear canal. To help you with the earwax removal, you can soften the earwax with some drops of:

  • Hydrogen peroxide
  • Carbamide peroxide
  • Mineral oil
  • Baby oil
  • Glycerin

When the earwax has softened, it should be easy for it to dislodge by itself and drain out of your ear canal.

If you buy an irrigation kit to remove wax build-up, ensure you follow the instructions on the product carefully. Only use a kit designed for ears and never irritate your ears if you have had an ear injury or medical procedure on your ear.

When to see your doctor

If you are worried about your ears or your hearing or you’ve not been able to successfully remove the blocked earwax, then you should make an appointment to see your doctor. If you find that your ears are particularly susceptible to getting blocked or you wear hearing aids, you may wish to organize regular preventative ear cleaning appointments with your doctor or hearing care professional to avoid earwax from building up.

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