October 5, 2011

Facts About Ear Wax

Parker,-Molly-NEWBy Dr. Molly Parker
Parker Audiology, PC

Ear wax, or cerumen, comes from a specialized sweat gland (Sudoriferous glands) in the ear canal. Ear wax serves to lubricate and disinfect the ear canal. The mere presence of wax is usually beneficial, but having too little or too much wax can sometimes be problematic. Too much wax creates a physical blockage in the ear canal causing hearing loss. Too little can also cause problems such as itchiness, bacterial growth, and dry skin. Just the right amount of wax will discourage bugs from entering the ear, lubricates the skin and reduces the risk of an ear infection in the ear canal (e.g. swimmer’s ear).

Wax often begins as a clear liquid in the ear canal and has a sticky feel to it with an odor of earwax. It is most noticeable in the morning. As wax ages, it collects dirt and can change color, often becoming the caramel- brown color that we recognize. Wax can range in color and texture from a light, nearly white color to nearly black. Texture can range from a liquid to flaky dry skin-texture up to a hard rock-like texture. Ear wax is best left alone in most ears. However, if there is too much earwax, it will cause a physical blockage and hearing loss.

If you suspect you have wax build up, it is best to ask your physician on the proper way to remove it. It is imperative that you rule out having a hole in the eardrum prior to doing anything. There are over the counter removal methods that are effective for some people. These include debrox ear drops, which can are inserted into the ear to lubricate the canal and soften the wax. Debrox is particularly helpful for hard wax impactions. Miracell is another drop that can help lubricate and soften the wax in the ear. Bulb syringe and accompanying solution is another effective way of removing wax. This can be uncomfortable and may even cause temporary vertigo. Sometimes, it is helpful to simply use a washcloth to wipe your ear canal with a bit of gentle soap and water. This may cut down on the feeling of itchiness.

NOTE: Qtips are NOT advised, as they will “bulldoze” wax into an impaction. The farther the wax is pushed in your ear, the harder it is to get it out and more likely it will cause temporary hearing loss. QTips can also scratch your ear canal, increasing risk for bacterial infection.

Physicians and audiologists may have other suggestions for your particular wax issue as different types of wax can sometimes benefit from different types of treatment.

The content in this article is based on clinical observations and not on hard clinical research.