Ear Wax: Friend or Foe?

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Cerumen, more commonly known as earwax, is a bodily emanation produced by the glands present in our outer ear. Like most other secretions, this is also something that we prefer to deal with in private. And, the mere need for its existence is questioned by many. Well, this ugly-looking and an often-flaky thing that you’d rather do without, is, in fact, quite useful for us in small amounts.

Why do we need earwax?

Used as salves and lip balms in the distant past, the earwax has some important contributions to our hearing health as well. Some of them are:

  • Acts as a natural cleanser: As it moves along the ear canal, the earwax gathers the dead cells, dirt or any foreign particle (like hair) that has been trapped in the ear canal.
  • Has antimicrobial properties: Earwax has been shown to have antibacterial and antifungal properties. It is due to the presence of lysozyme, an enzyme that destroys the microorganism cells.
  • Prevents irritation: Earwax protects the skin from irritation caused by exposure to water.
  • Prevents drying of the ear canal: Too much dryness in the ear canal can lead to itchiness. This discomfort often results in people scratching their ears with rather sharp objects that may lead to injury.
  • Apart from this, the nature of earwax may reveal the underlying health conditions (e.g less acidic earwax in diabetics) and even give an indication of the pollutants prevalent in an area.

Normally, the earwax is propelled out of the ear canal by the natural jaw movements during talking or chewing. Once they reach the ear opening, they tend to dry up and flake off harmlessly. However, if this process is hindered, either by overzealous at-home removal or due to infections and old age, excessive ear wax can build up. This can result in temporary hearing loss subsequent to the blockage of our ear canal.

So, although the American Academy of Otolaryngology–Head and Neck Surgery stresses on a “let-it-be” outlook when it comes to earwax removal, it is wise to look for the following signs of trouble:

  • Earaches
  • Tinnitus (buzzing or ringing feeling in your ear)
  • Sudden loss of hearing (usually partial and temporary)
  • Plugging or fullness sensation in your ear.

In the case of infections, you may experience pronounced symptoms like severe pain that doesn’t subside, coughing, dizziness, drainage, and fever. There may even be a foul odor in some cases.

Even the use of hearing aids can lead to increased wax secretions from the glands. Furthermore, the obstructed passage for the migration of wax leads to its build up and, subsequently, blockage. In fact, almost 70% of damaged hearing aids sent for repair find their culprit in earwax.

So, the next question is: “How do we remove ‘excess’ earwax?”

At-home removal: First things first. Never ever use objects like bobby pins, pencils or even the occasional twisted paper tissue to remove earwax. You may end up doing more harm than good. The rule of thumb for an at-home removal using cotton swabs is to stay in the outer portions of the ear. Failure to do so results in pushing the earwax deeper into the ear canal which may facilitate blockage. Instead of scratching the flaky earwax, use over-the-counter softeners made from glycerine, baby oil, olive oil or hydrogen peroxide for easy removal.

OTC irrigation kits: Another popular method is to irrigate the ear. However, be wary of not using a product that was meant to irrigate the teeth or mouth. They generate much more water pressure and may cause injury. Moreover, if you ever had any infections in the past or a ruptured eardrum, it is best to avoid this method at all costs.

Ear Candles: Also known as ear coning, this method involves the use of a fabric coated in paraffin or beeswax and works on the principle of suction. However, the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) warns about the safety of such products as they can result in punctured eardrums, burns, and even bleeding.

Professional cleaning: Your hearing professional removes an earwax blockage in a similar manner as you do it at home BUT with better instruments, clearer view, and much more expertise. They may either make use of curettes, irrigation or suction depending on the condition.

Clinicians are often the last resort when it comes to dealing with such problems. And though, it is okay to leave the earwax as such, often, people see their doctors when the condition has worsened to an irreversible or highly damaged stage. Therefore, it is best to see your doctor annually for a routine check-up, especially if you are a hearing aid wearer.

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