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The good and the bad: Everything you need to know about earwax

By: Paul Harrison Updated: 4th December 2019 in: Latest News, Articles
The good and the bad: Everything you need to know about earwax

Most people see earwax, or cerumen, as a nuisance to be cleaned away regularly. However, earwax plays a major beneficial role in our ears. In order to look after your ears and maintain good hearing for years to come, you should be mindful of how earwax works to keep your ears clean.

Although it is known as earwax, it is not really wax. It does have a waxy consistency, but it gets that from the combination of oil sweat from the outer ear, which is then mixed with dead skin cells, hair, and dirt. It also tends to be darker and drier in older adults.

The good

This natural substance performs a number of important roles within the ear:

It helps clean your ears: Earwax functions as a protective shield that prevents any dirt or bacteria from entering the inside of your body. Its sticky consistency is ideal for collecting microscopic debris that might get into your ear canal, similar to the way a sticker might pick up dust. Your inner ear would be at risk of infection without this defensive barrier.

It helps moisturise your ears: Earwax also moisturises your ear canal. Without it, your outer ear may turn itchy and flaky, making you more likely to become irritated and infected. In the same way that lip balm prevents chapped lips, earwax helps protect the inside of our ears from the effects of dryness.

It leaves by itself: Earwax naturally remove itself from the ear canal. It typically travels towards the ear canal opening, where it dries and falls out. It is also washed away during showering.  In this way, earwax doesn't usually need any help from any external instruments to get out of the ear canal.

The bad

While earwax is important for hearing health, a common problem is too much earwax in the ear canal.  In the United Kingdom, it is estimated that 2.3 million people have issues with excessive earwax every year. Indeed, earwax removal is the most widespread ENT procedure performed in primary care with nearly 4 million ears irrigated every year.

What causes excess earwax?

Hearing aids

Hearing aids that are snugly positioned inside the ear will stop ear wax from escaping. This does not usually cause trouble, but it should be noted if your ears are more susceptible to wax build-up.

Getting older

The older you are, the more likely you are to harbour excessive earwax, experts say. This is because earwax in older ears tends to be drier find it harder to leave by itself.

Cotton swabs

Many in the UK have a long-established ear cleaning habit with cotton buds, this increases the chances of forcing old earwax further down into the ear canal, causing a blockage. Often people have real earwax issues which need to be addressed, but cotton buds aren't the way to do it.

Spotting the signs of excessive earwax

There are many symptoms of the over-accumulation of earwax. You may experience one or all of these symptoms, but it is crucial not to self-diagnose. Only your GP will be able to give you an accurate verdict.

Some of the common symptoms include:

  • Hearing loss 
  • Earache 
  • Itchiness inside or around the ear 
  • Buzzing or whistling sounds coming from inside your head, without the presence of external noise. 
  • A feeling of dizziness or spinning 
  • Ear infections 
     

The most common cause of conductive hearing loss is excessive earwax. A physical barrier of earwax prevents sounds from the outer ear travelling to the inner ear. As the wax develops gradually, it can be hard to detect the effects on hearing loss. However, the problem becomes clearer when the wax builds up to the point of obstructing the ear canal fully. Luckily, this type of hearing loss can usually be reversed by removing the offending earwax.

What to do if you have a earwax blockage

If you develop an obstruction in your ears and think that earwax is the culprit, its advised you follow this advice:

  • Do not use a cotton bud, a hairpin or a sharp tool to try to remove the wax. When you poke at your ear with a foreign object, the earwax pushes back into our ear canals and may cause health problems and cause the problem to escalate. 
  • Do not try ear candling. In this practice, a tapered long candle is inserted into the ears of the individual with impacted earwax and then the other end is lit. Those who practise ear candling claim that the fire produces suction, which draws the earwax out of the ear. These claims are simply not true. Furthermore, lighting objects so close to the ear constitutes a fire risk and is not recommended by the NHS. Injuries may include eye, ear and middle ear burns, eardrum damage or further blockage of the ear canal.

Here are some things to do instead:

Use ear drops

A pharmacist might recommend chemical drops to dissolve the earwax. The earwax will break off on its own or dissolve after approximately one week. Nonetheless, do not use if you have a hole in your eardrums (a perforated eardrum).

See your GP or Local Audiologist

Use this option if your home treatments don’t produce results after a week. Audiologists typically have the expertise and equipment required to safely remove excess earwax. Make sure to see your General Practitioner if you have sudden hearing loss or pain.

Performing routine earwax maintenance

Although your ears actually clean themselves, there are a few things you can do to keep your ears clean and free of unnecessary debris.  Use a warm soapy washcloth to wash your ears. If you let warm water flow into your ears occasionally during your shower will also make the earwax softer, making it easier to fall out by itself.

Even if you have no earwax problem, it's a good idea to have your hearing checked by an audiologist annually. They can identify excess earwax and some can even extract it for you. In any case, they will offer invaluable advice to keep your ears healthy.

In most situations, the body is great at removing excess earwax on its own. Nonetheless, medical intervention may be necessary to stop hearing loss and a number of other underlying disorders, when impacted earwax arises. With a few simple hygiene measures and regular visits to healthcare professionals however, you’ll easily learn to have earwax work with you instead of against you.

Read next: Tips on Winter Hearing Health

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