Earwax (also known as cerumen) is produced by special glands in the outer part of the ear canal and is designed to trap dust and dirt particles keeping them from reaching the eardrum. Usually the wax accumulates, dries, and then falls out of the ear on its own or is wiped away. One of the most common and easily treatable causes of hearing loss is accumulated earwax. Using cotton swabs or other small objects to remove earwax is not recommended as it pushes the earwax deeper into the ear, increasing buildup and affecting hearing. Excessive earwax can be a chronic condition best treated by a physician.
Cerumen (se-roo-men) or earwax is a self-cleaning agent produced in your ears with protective, lubricating, and antibacterial properties. Earwax is not really a “wax” but a water-soluble mixture of secretions and dead skin. Earwax is formed in the outer one-third of the ear canal, but not in the deep part of the ear canal near the eardrum.
The absence of earwax may result in dry, itchy ears. Most of the time the ear canals are self-cleaning; that is, there is a slow and orderly migration of earwax and skin cells from the eardrum to the ear opening. Old earwax is constantly being transported, assisted by chewing and jaw motion, from the ear canal to the ear opening where it usually dries, flakes, and falls out.
Under ideal circumstances, the ear canals should never have to be cleaned. However, that isn’t always the case. The ears should be cleaned when enough earwax accumulates to cause symptoms or to prevent a needed assessment of the ear.
To clean the ears, wash the external ear with a cloth, but do not insert anything into the ear canal.
Most cases of earwax blockage respond to home treatments used to soften wax. Patients can try placing a few drops of mineral oil, baby oil, glycerin, or commercial drops in the ear. Detergent drops such as hydrogen peroxide or carbamide peroxide may also aid in the removal of wax.
Some patients require manual removal of earwax. This is most often performed by an otolaryngologist or otologist using suction, special miniature instruments, and a microscope to magnify the ear canal. Manual removal is preferred if your ear canal is narrow, the eardrum has a perforation or tube, other methods have failed, or if you have diabetes or a weakened immune system.
Many people mistakenly believe that earwax should be routinely removed for personal hygiene. This is not so. In fact, attempting to remove earwax with cotton-tipped swabs, bobby pins, or other probing devices can result in damage to the ear, including trauma, impaction of the earwax, or even temporary deafness. These objects only push the wax in deeper, and can block the ear canal entirely.
Ear candles are not a safe option of wax removal as they may result in serious injury. Some of the most common injuries are burns, obstruction of the ear canal with wax of the candle, or perforation of the membrane that separates the ear canal and the middle ear.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) became concerned about the safety issues with ear candles after receiving reports of patient injury caused by the ear candling procedure. There are no controlled studies or other scientific evidence that support the safety and effectiveness of these devices for any of the purported claims or intended uses as contained in the labeling. Based on the growing concern associated with the manufacture, marketing, and use of ear candles, the FDA has undertaken several successful regulatory actions, including product seizures and injunctions, since 1996. These actions were based, in part, upon violations of the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act that pose an imminent danger to health.
Your ears may require microscopic removal of the wax. If you have recurrent problems with excessive wax, it is wise to seek care by an otolaryngologist or otologist as they will ensure that no other skin conditions or chronic infections are leading to the problem.
If there is a possibility of a hole (perforation or puncture) in the eardrum, consult your otolaryngologist or otologist prior to trying any over-the-counter remedies. Putting eardrops, water, or other products in the ear with the presence of an eardrum perforation may cause pain or an infection.
The physicians at the Midwest Ear Institute would be happy to examine and evaluate your ears. If you have a problem with wax, mention it to the office staff as we will have you see the physician first prior to any other hearing or balance tests which may be affected.