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Facts about earwax

Earwax is not often something that people really want to think about. But earwax is something that we all have, and despite how unsightly you may think it is, it plays a crucial role in keeping our ear canals clean. However, a build-up of excess earwax can lead to infections and a hearing loss, making it tempting to grab some cotton buds and start digging around in their ears.

What you may not realise though is by doing this, you could actually be pushing the earwax further into your ear canal and increasing the risk of a blockage.

So, what is the best way to remove earwax?

Why do we even have it in the first place?

For everything you need to know about earwax, read on to get an earful of some earwax facts.

Facts about earwax

What causes wax in ears?

Earwax or cerumen is a natural waxy oil substance made up of skin cells and sebum from inside the ear and secretions from the ceruminous glands located in the outer ear canal.

Is it true that ears are self-cleaning?

Our ears clean themselves thanks to earwax. As earwax drains through the ear canal, it lubricates while trapping dust dirt and any foreign particles. It also traps microorganisms and bacteria which helps to protect the ear from infection. The wax and debris will eventually reach the outer ear. Whenever you move your jaw to speak or chew, the earwax will then slowly move away from the eardrum to the ear opening and then dry up and fall out.

What causes ear canals to become blocked? If excess earwax accumulates, it can block the ear canal which can lead to infection and a temporary hearing loss. Impacted earwax can be caused by several factors. The ear canal glands can sometimes produce too much oil, which can harden and block the ear. Inserting cotton swabs in your ear to clean them will often push the earwax deeper into the canal and lead to a blockage developing. You also increase your risk of impacted earwax if you use earphones or earplugs regularly or wear a hearing aid. Earwax blockage can also be caused by:

  • Skin conditions such as eczema

  • Narrow ear canals

  • Infections

  • Bony obstructions such as osteoma or exostosis

Is it normal to have brown earwax?

If you notice brown earwax in your ears, don’t worry, it’s perfectly normal – even red or black is, too. The colour of earwax can vary, so if you notice that the colour of your earwax is different from someone else's, there’s no need to be alarmed. The variation in colour happens as a result of oxidation combined with your body chemistry.

What are the signs of an earwax blockage?

Hearing loss is one of the most common signs that your ears are blocked with earwax. It’s a leading cause of temporary conductive hearing loss in older people. Other symptoms of impacted earwax can include tinnitus (ringing in the ears), earache and a sensation that your ears are plugged or a feeling of fullness. As wax traps bacteria in the ear, impacted earwax can lead to infections, resulting in symptoms such as:

  • Ear pain that doesn’t go away

  • Dizziness

  • Persistent cough

  • Ear drainage

  • Fever

  • Itchy ears

  • Discharge

  • An odour from the ears

  • Persistent hearing loss

There can be several causes for hearing loss, fever, dizziness and earache. If you experience any of these symptoms, you should see a doctor as soon as possible.

When should you remove earwax?

If the person with an earwax blockage is a child, don’t attempt to remove the wax yourself. This could potentially damage their developing ears and cause hearing loss. Leave it for an audiologist to treat instead.

What’s the best way to remove earwax? If you think your ears are blocked by earwax, the audiologist or ENT can help to clear it. They will be able to remove the impacted earwax without risk of damaging your ear. Your audiologist may choose to irrigate your ear, use a suction device to remove the excess earwax or a small curved instrument called a curette to scoop out the wax. At Wigan Hearing we have had additional training in every method so can adapt the methods to suit you and the ear wax. If you do decide to remove the earwax yourself, you mustn’t insert anything into your ears, especially cotton buds. These should only be used to clean the outer part of the ear and never inserted into your ear canal. To help dislodge the earwax, you can soften it with a few drops of:

  • Mineral oil

  • Glycerin

  • Baby oil

  • Carbamide peroxide

  • Hydrogen peroxide

Once the earwax has softened, you may find it drains out of your ear canal by itself. You should not use irrigation if you have undergone any medical procedures on your ear or have had had an injury to the ear. You could risk perforating your eardrum.

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