What’s the deal with ear wax?

The ear canal is a dark, warm, damp tunnel in the side of your head. Aside from channeling sound to your eardrum, it should be an ideal place to harvest tiny agents of infection. Bacteria, viruses, fungus, insects, etc. should thrive in such a place. However, we typically don’t have an ear infection at any given time.  Cerumen, or ear wax, plays an important role in protecting our ears.

Inside the ear canal, the skin contains two kinds of glands that produce secretions. These combine with debris and dead skin cells that are constantly being regenerated. This accumulates over time in some ears. The result is the substance we call ear wax.

Aside from lubricating the ear canal, the wax also traps debris and neutralizes many microbes. The wax is toxic to many common types of bacteria and fungi. In most ears the cerumen gradually migrates out of the canal with dead skin cells. In some people, however, it can accumulate. While otherwise harmless, wax can interfere with hearing, cause a plugging sensation, enhance tinnitus and interfere with hearing aids. It can even hide deep infections from view.

Anyone who told you during childhood not to put anything into your ears “smaller than your elbow” was correct. If you suspect an accumulation, please leave wax removal to professionals. Professionals include audiologists, otolaryngologists (ENT), primary care physicians, nurses and nurse practitioner/PAs. We have the training and equipment, and we can see what we are doing.

Approved methods for removal include curette – a small loop, or suction. We may use softening drops. Irrigation, while not favored by many ear specialists, may be done safely by a professional.

Avoid use of cotton swabs or picks; these typically do little more than pack wax farther back and can damage the canal skin or ear drum. Also, the shallower the wax is, the less unpleasant the removal will be. Do not, under any circumstance, allow someone to put a lit candle in your ears. This is a dangerous practice that has no place in health care.

Another reason to have your ears examined is the possibility that the symptoms are not from wax. In this case only a thorough diagnostic evaluation will reveal the problem and guide treatment. As always, we wish to keep you on a clear path to good hearing and ear health.