When did you give more than a passing thought to that yellow waxy substance that sometimes appears in your ears? Probably not for some time. Earwax is something that most people don’t pay much attention to. That’s until we have a painful ear infection or uncomfortable blockage. Earwax has an important role to play in keeping our ears clean and healthy but it’s something that most of the time we just take for granted. To find out more about this special substance, here are some interesting wax facts you should know.
Earwax is not actually wax. It gets its name from its sticky, wax-like texture. It’s made up of sebum, a body secretion mostly made up of fat, sweat, dirt and skin cells. The medical name for earwax is cerumen and it is a very natural and harmless substance. The ear produces earwax to protect and clean itself. It is secreted by the glands in the skin that line the outer part of your ear canals. The earwax along with the very small hairs in these passages trap foreign particles and dirt that could damage the deeper structures in your ear, such as the eardrum.
Remarkably, our ears are self-cleaning. Once the wax has collected up all the debris from your ear canal, the everyday movements you do with your jaws, such as chewing or talking, encourage the earwax to move out of your ear, taking the dirt and dead skin cells with it.
We don’t all have the same colour of earwax. Some people have brown earwax, even red or black. The colour of your earwax is determined by your body’s chemistry combined with oxidation.
While earwax has an important job, you can have too much of a good thing. If excess wax builds-up, it can block the ear and cause a variety of problems. You might be more prone to your ears getting blocked by earwax if you:
Inserting cotton swabs or other objects into the ears to clean them can push ear wax deeper into the canal and cause a blockage. Frequent use of earphones, swimming plugs, work-required earplugs, and hearing aids also increases the risk of impacted ear wax.
Other causes of ear wax blockages include:
There are several different telltale signs that you may have a build-up of earwax in your ears that’s causing them to be blocked. The most common symptom is hearing loss. An excess build-up of earwax is the main cause of many older adults developing temporary conductive hearing loss. You could also experience tinnitus (ringing in the ears), earache, and a sensation of fullness in the affected ear. As earwax is designed to trap bacteria, once it becomes impacted it can cause infections and some of the following symptoms:
Certain symptoms such as earache, fever and hearing loss can be caused by other factors, not just ears blocked by earwax. If you experience any of these problems, it’s a good idea to arrange to see your doctor as soon as possible.
In most cases, earwax will simply drop out of your ear on its own and you don’t need to do anything about it. But if you think you have a build-up of earwax and it feels uncomfortable and causing you symptoms, you should get the earwax removed before it leads to anything more serious. The most effective and above all safest way to remove earwax to have your doctor clear it for you.
Your doctor can remove any blockages caused by earwax for you. They may do it by irrigating the ear, removing the excess wax with a suction device or scoop it out with a small curved instrument. While it’s safest for your doctor to do it, there are remedies and products available which you can use yourself. However, if the person with a blocked ear is a child, you should never attempt to remove earwax from their ears. It could harm their young ears and could even result in hearing loss. Let a doctor or hearing care professional do it instead.
It’s not generally recommended that people remove their impacted earwax themselves. However, if you do decide to remove earwax yourself then it’s important to remember you should never insert anything into your ear – and that includes cotton swabs. These should only be used to clean the outer part of your ear and never put into your ear canal. There are over-the-counter products you can buy that will soften the earwax and make it easier to come out. If you do decide to use a product like this, make sure you follow the instructions on the product. Alternatively, you can make your own drops from the following items you may have at home:
Once you have put a few drops in your ear and the wax has softened sufficiently, it should drain out of the ear on its own.
If you choose to use an irrigation kit, only use one that has been specifically designed for ears. You should also avoid using irrigation on your ears if you have had any medical procedures on your ears or suffered an injury to your ear.
If you try to remove the impacted earwax yourself but it doesn’t seem to have worked, or your hearing seems to have deteriorated, don’t do anything more to your ears and contact your doctor. If your ears are naturally prone to wax build-up, you may need frequent treatment to remove it when it begins to become a problem.
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