Understanding Earwax: A Natural Guardian for Your Ears
Earwax, scientifically known as cerumen, is a substance that often gets an undeserved bad rap. Its appearance, thick and waxy, ranging in color from off-white to brown, might make it seem unsightly or unclean. However, earwax is far from dirty or unhealthy; in fact, it’s a sign of your ears functioning precisely as they should.
What is Earwax?
Earwax primarily consists of oils produced by glands in your ears, with approximately 60% keratin—a natural protein that keeps your hair, skin, and nails healthy. The remaining components include dead skin cells, fatty acids, and other compounds.
Daily Earwax Care
In most cases, the best approach to earwax is to simply leave it alone. Contrary to common misconceptions about hygiene, earwax is a valuable ally in maintaining ear health. Here’s why:
- Infection Prevention: Earwax helps prevent bacterial infections by keeping the ear canal’s skin moist and preventing irritation caused by dust or debris.
- Natural Debris Removal: Earwax acts as a natural cleaner, capturing and transporting dust, debris, and dried skin out of the ear canal over time.
Think of earwax as nature’s way of caring for your ears, similar to how tears protect and cleanse your eyes. Just as tears flow to remove impurities from your eyes, earwax gradually moves along the ear canal, carrying away particles that could cause harm.
Earwax Care: Avoiding Common Mistakes
The golden rule is that you should not do anything invasive about earwax on your own. In most cases, your ear will take care of itself. In cases where it doesn’t, the only safe option is to see a hearing healthcare provider as they possess the professional tools, such as an otoscope, to assess whether you have earwax build-up that requires medical attention. And, if they find that you have such a build-up, they will know how to remove the earwax safely and comfortably.
Do not use cotton swabs or other small tools
Cotton swabs, or any similar, small items, are dangerous. Most cotton swab boxes even say not to insert a cotton swab in the ear. The reason is two-fold.
First, they are very small, and they can easily puncture your eardrum, no matter how careful you are. The reason being is that your sinuses connect your ears, nose and throat. Because of that connection, you may inadvertently trigger a sneeze or a cough, which would cause a sudden movement which can result in a punctured eardrum. Aside from being extremely painful, this can also lead to an ear infection or worse.
Second, you may end up working against your goal of cleaning out earwax. The cotton swab or other object can actually push earwax deeper into your ear canal and against your eardrum, thereby impacting the wax.
Don't use ear candles
Ear candles are, essentially, tubes of waxed fabric that you insert into your ear, then set the opposite end on fire. The idea is that a vacuum is created that sucks the earwax out, and it is about as safe as it sounds. Aside from the fire hazards, the vacuum can puncture the eardrum. Other, safer sounding terms for this are ear coning and thermal auricular therapy.
Why Earwax Buildup Occurs
Earwax build-up is a common occurrence, even though earwax is a natural substance. Several factors contribute to it:
- Excess Production: Some individuals naturally produce more earwax than others.
- Impaction: Using earbuds or hearing aids can push earwax deeper into the ear canal, hindering its natural expulsion.
- Aging: As you age, your ears may produce less fluid earwax, leading to a higher likelihood of build-up.
Recognizing Earwax Build-Up
The signs of earwax build-up often mimic those of conductive hearing loss:
- Muffled hearing
- Tinnitus (ringing or buzzing in the ears)
- Difficulty understanding speech
- Feeling of fullness or plugging
- Feedback or whistling (if you are already wearing hearing aids)
Safe Management of Earwax Build-Up
If you suspect earwax build-up, it’s crucial to address it safely and promptly. Here’s what we recommend that you do:
- Consult a Professional: Book an appointment with a hearing healthcare provider, as they can assess the severity and cause of your earwax build-up.
- In-Clinic Removal: In many cases, a Clinician can safely remove impacted earwax during your appointment, providing immediate relief.
- Hearing Test: If earwax is not the sole cause of your hearing struggles, we recommend that you schedule a hearing test with a trusted professional to look into this further and determine a solution that is right, just for you!
Remember, your hearing health is essential, and seeking professional guidance is the safest and most effective way to manage earwax build-up and any associated hearing concerns.