Earwax On, Earwax Off

Earwax: If you have ears, you have it - however, when it comes to management or treatment of the sometimes pesky wax, there are a lot of opposing opinions floating around.

Posted on | Jonathan E. Aviv, MD, FACS | Comments ()

Earwax: If you have ears, you have it - however, when it comes to management or treatment of the sometimes pesky wax, there are a lot of opposing opinions floating around.


What is it? What should you do with it? Does it serve any purpose other than to gross people out? How should you clean your ears?


So let's straighten out the facts about earwax, and identify the best regimen for you and your ears to remain healthy and well functioning.


Earwax, medically known as cerumen (seh-roo-men) has protective, lubricating, and antibacterial properties for the external ear canal. The external ear canal is the part of the ear that connects the outer part of the ear, that which is visible to everyone, to the ear drum, that which is invisible to everyone. In healthy ears, ear canals are self-cleaning. This means there is a slow, natural outward movement of earwax and ear debris from the eardrum to the ear opening. Without interference, a healthy body moves wax out of the ear canal on its own by chewing, talking and swallowing. As the wax moves further outwards it goes from a typical moist wet wax to a dry, flaky wax which then simply falls out of the ear canal. 


So - what are the best habits to assist the body in the natural elimination of earwax?


Rule #1 (the most important of them all): never put anything inside your ear that is smaller than your elbow. Yes, that includes Q-tips. Wax is made from glands located in the outer one-third of your ear canal. When using a Q-tip (aka cotton tipped applicator) to clean the ear canal it invariably pushes any wax present in the outer portion of the ear canal into the inner portion of the ear canal. Effectively, anything you place inside your ear will work against the body's natural process of eliminating wax from the ear and cause it to pile up further into the canal, near the delicate eardrum.


Even though your body has natural mechanisms for self-cleaning, some ears suffer from earwax accumulation. It is a condition called cerumen impaction and you may experience earache, the feeling of a plugged ear, hearing loss, itching, odor/discharge, or a ringing in the ear. If you are experiencing one or more of these symptoms, you may require treatment by an ear, nose and throat (ENT) doctor. However, sometimes there are over-the-counter remedies to alleviate the earwax impaction. The mainstays of home treatments are about softening hard wax. One may use a few drops of mineral oil, or baby oil, in the ear. The softened wax can then be removed with over-the-counter hydrogen peroxide ear drops.


But let's say you have followed the rule #1, tried at home remedies and you are still suffering from wax buildup - then it is time to visit your ENT doctor. Your ENT doctor can examine the ear canal under a microscope and use microscopic instruments to remove the earwax safely, quickly and painlessly.


So when you feel that you are suffering from hearing loss, your ears feel clogged or itchy, or told that your ears are dirty - before taking matters in your own hands - please see your ENT doctor.


For more information, please visit www.entandallergy.com.

Blog written by Jonathan E. Aviv, MD, FACS
Author of over 60 scientific papers in peer-reviewed journals and Flexible Endoscopic Evaluation of Swallowing with Sensory...