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What Is Earwax


Why is earwax important? Should I clean my ears? How do I know if I have excessive earwax and when should I consult a doctor?

Earwax, known as cerumen in medical terms, is secreted in the (skin on the outer part of the ear canal has special glands ) ear canal of humans and many other mammals.

Why does the body produce earwax?

Earwax protects the skin of the human ear canal and assists in cleaning and lubrication whilst also providing protection from bacteria, fungi, insects and water. The absence of ear wax results in dry, itchy ears, that are prone to infection.

Earwax comes in several forms, it may be almost liquid, firm and solid, or dry and flaky. The color of ear wax can also vary depending upon its composition.

earwx cotton q tip1 What Is Earwax

Ears are generally self-cleaning, a small amount of wax accumulates, dries up and falls out of the ear canal, ridding the ear of unwanted dust or sand particles. This process often goes unnoticed but sometimes, excess or impacted cerumen can begin to press against the eardrum causes discomfort and/or impaired hearing.

When should ear wax be removed?

Under ideal circumstances, a person should never have to clean their ear canals. Earwax is not formed in the deep part of the ear canal near the eardrum, but in the outer one-third of the ear canal. Using a q-tip to clean the inner part of your ear will only push the wax nearer the ear drum. This practice is a common cause of many perforated eardrums, plus the skin of the ear canal and the eardrum is very thin and fragile, and is easily injured.

However in some cases excessive ear wax may build up in the ear canal for a variety of reasons including:

  • narrowing of the ear canal resulting from infections or diseases of the skin, bones, or connective tissue.
  • production of a less fluid form of cerumen (more common in older persons due to aging of the glands that produce ear wax).
  • overproduction of cerumen in response to trauma or blockage within the ear canal.

As a general rule, the ears should only be cleaned when earwax accumulates enough to cause symptoms or to prevent a needed assessment of the ear by your doctor.

Symptoms Of Excessive Earwax

There are several symptoms of excessive earwax, these include:

  • Earache, fullness in the ear, or a sensation the ear is plugged
  • Partial hearing loss, which may be progressive
  • Feeling of fullness in the involved ear
  • Tinnitus, ringing, or noises in the ear
  • Itching, odor, or discharge
  • Coughing

earwax diagram What Is Earwax

When To See A Surgeon

If you experience any of the above symptoms, you should consult your physician as soon as possible, even if you only end up with an over-the-counter remedy, at least you will have had a professional consultation.

The doctor will also be able to advise you of other problems you may not have previously been aware of, such as a perforated eardrum.

If the wax has accumulated to the extent that it blocks the ear canal (and interferes with hearing), a physician may have to remove it by wash it out (known as lavage), vacuum it, or remove it with special instruments.

Alternatively, a physician may prescribe ear drops that are designed to soften the wax.

The patient may first try an over-the-counter product (OTC) if they need to remove ear wax, such as Debrox or Murine Ear Drops.

If the person does try OTC ear wax softeners, it is imperative to know that he or she does not have a perforated (punctured) eardrum prior to using the product. Putting ear wax softeners in the ear in the presence of a perforated eardrum may cause an infection in the middle ear.

Some individuals may also be hypersensitive to products designed to soften ear wax. Therefore, if pain, tenderness or a local skin rash develops, the use of these drops should be discontinued.

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