Earwax…chances are you don’t spend too much thinking about it. But did you know this sticky substance plays an important role in protecting your ears? Scientists are still uncovering the many ways that earwax, also known as cerumen, safeguards our hearing and holds secrets to understanding our general health. Here are some fun (yes, fun!) facts about earwax as well as a few tips on how to safely clean your ears.
What exactly is earwax?
Earwax or cerumen is composed of oil, sweat, dirt and dead skin cells. This sticky mixture is just the right consistency for trapping microscopic debris and bacteria that could otherwise find its way into the ear canal, causing irritation or infection. Protecting the fragile hair cells and other components of the inner ear from harmful elements is vital in preventing hearing loss–and this is your earwax’s number one job.
An excellent multi-tasker
Earwax not only serves as a shield which blocks out dust and debris, it also creates an acidic, antibacterial and antifungal environment in the ear canal so that potentially dangerous bacteria cannot thrive. What else can this amazing substance do?
-It prevents the ear canal from becoming too dry, flaky and irritated, due to its moisturizing properties
-It creates a moisture-barrier which helps to keep water out of the ear canal, further reducing the risk of bacterial infections
-It helps to move dead skin cells out the ear canal
-It repels insects naturally, due to its chemical composition, and acts as a sticky “bug trap”
Earwax varies from person to person
A lot can be told from a person’s earwax. Although it is a substance that nearly everyone’s ears produce, it differs widely in its composition. These differences depend on one’s ethnicity, diet, age, general health and even their environment. Earwax has already been shown to give an early warning sign to two odor-causing diseases before they can be detected in blood or urine, and researchers think it may contain even more health information.
Your body produces exactly the right amount (in most cases)
Although many people hold the ingrained idea that earwax needs to be regularly cleaned out with a cotton swab, the opposite is actually true. Most people produce earwax at a rate that provides adequate coverage for the membranes while allowing older cerumen to dry and flake off imperceptibly, before blocking the canal and causing a hearing loss. In fact, ear wax will interfere with hearing only if it is completely blocking the canal.
The habit of removing earwax (with a cotton swab, for example) actually sends a signal to your body to make more, creating an excess which can create problems with hearing, and put you at greater risk for developing ear infections and other complications.
How to safely clean your ears (no cotton swabs!)
Even though our bodies typically know how much to make, earwax build-ups can still happen. Excessive earwax and earwax blockages occur in about 5% of adults, according to the American Academy of Otolaryngology, so there’s a chance you could find yourself with one. What is the best approach for dealing with a blockage? There a few simple steps you can take, and they don’t involve putting Q-tips in your ears.
If you feel the sensation of stuffiness in your ears, or are experiencing a slight hearing loss, and think that earwax is the culprit, avoid using a cotton swab, hairpin or any sharp instrument to attempt to remove wax yourself. Cleaning out earwax with a cotton swab can actually contribute to blockages as it pushes the wax deeper into the ear canal where it becomes impacted and cannot be expelled naturally. Inserting instruments into the ear canal also carries the risk of puncturing the eardrum. Instead:
- Try a hot shower first, letting warm water run into your ears. This will loosen and soften the earwax, allowing it to be cleaned out more easily. Use a warm washcloth to clean your Wash your ears using a warm, soapy wash cloth. Letting warm water from your daily shower run into your ears every so often is probably enough to soften and loosen excess earwax.
- If your ears are healthy and you don’t have any perforations, you can use an over-the-counter ear cleaning kit. Your local pharmacist or audiologist can recommend one, but don’t use one on a child under 12 without consulting a doctor first.
- Make an appointment with your physician immediately if your home treatments aren’t effective or if you experience hearing loss, pain, dizziness or bleeding.
Visit Us at Exceptional Hearing Care
A physical examination of your ears is just one part of a comprehensive hearing test. At Exceptional Hearing Care, we’ll take a look to see if there are any blockages in your ear canals due to earwax before we begin any hearing testing. To schedule your appointment, contact us today.