Ear wax: We all have it. We all want it gone.
Most audiologists are often asked about ear wax. What is it? Why is it sticky? Why do I make so much? How can I get rid of it?
Say “yes” to ear wax.
Ear wax actually helps to keep your ears clean.
The wax traps dirt, dust and debris such as dead skin cells from the ear canal, dried shampoo and shave cream and possibly the occasional flea or gnat. This debris is held together by oil and wax secreted by glands living in your ear canal. The secretions also have natural antibiotic properties that help keep bad bacteria from growing in the warm dark and cozy environment of ear canals. And you thought it was just a nuisance!
What kind of wax do you produce?
Ear wax or cerumen comes in two varieties: wet (honey-colored and sticky) and dry (grayish and flaky). Ear wax type is highly heritable and considered a Mendelian trait that follows the laws of genetics. The trait of wet or dry ear wax was once attributed to a single gene but today, research has identified another gene contributing to this sticky situation. Your ear wax type was determined by your ancestry. Almost all people with European or African ancestry have wet wax. If you have northeastern Asian ancestry will most likely have the dry and flaky variety.
People have no trouble cleaning belly button lint and removing mucus from the nose, but most have no clue how to safely take care of excess ear wax. For most people the ear is self-cleaning and ear wax is removed by the natural flow of the wax out of the ear. Ear wax problems are typically self-inflicted. If you listen with ear phones for long periods of time, (at safe loudness levels please) wax can become trapped because the natural flow of wax out of the canal is blocked with the ear phone. However, most problems arise when the wax becomes impacted up close to the ear drum— down deep in the ear canal. This usually occurs from attempts to clean ear wax using implements of destruction such as cotton swabs, hair pins and tooth picks. If you choose to use these tools to clean your ears, you run the risk of puncturing the ear drum (ouch!) or impacting the wax in the canal in an area beyond the oil secreting cells. The soft wax dries up into a hard ball and can cause a temporary hearing loss or dizziness until it is professionally removed. Contact an audiologist if you think ear wax may be the cause of your hearing or dizziness problems. Audiologists will advise you on how to prepare for a professional ear cleaning. They often provide ear wax removal. And if you make more than is typical, the audiologist will schedule appointments once or twice a year to keep things under control.
Do you have too much of a good thing?
Stress (even physical exercise) and anxiety can increase wax production as well as medications that either activate or diminish the “flight or fight” response. Anatomical structures of the ear canal can cause wax to become trapped. When the ear canal twists and turns or narrows a bit, the wax will not easily flow from the canal. Even normal aging increases wax production.
Just as grandmother reminded us…put nothing smaller than your elbow in your ear and let Mother Nature do her work.
What other common questions do you get from patients in your audiology practice?
Pamela Mason, M.Ed., CCC-A is the director of audiology professional practices at the ASHA national office. She is a member of ASHA’s SIG 8, Public Health Issues Related to Hearing and Balance.