The Truth About Earwax

Many people appear interested in the topic of ear wax. This is the mysterious substance that often lines or fills the ear canals leading to the ear drum. There are many misconceptions about wax in the canals and several safe methods for removing it. Questions naturally arise. What is this substance? Is it bad to have? Do I need it removed? How can it be removed safely? Can it be prevented?

Cerumen is the technical term for ear wax. It is a natural substance secreted by several glands in the skin of the ear canal. It can be considered a part of our immune system. The chemical composition of the wax makes it toxic to many bacteria, fungus, insects and maintains a pH balance that keeps the canal infection free. This is impressive, considering germs should love damp, dark, warm spaces. In some people it accumulates faster than the ear can self-clear it. When the liquid portion evaporates, we are left with the waxy substance, which can be either dry or wet. Dust and dead skin cells also make up a portion of the wax.

Given the intended self protection function, cerumen is not dangerous to your health. When it accumulates enough to block the canal, however, it interferes with hearing and communication. Tinnitus can appear louder. Ears can feel plugged. Hearing aids will appear to stop working.

Ear wax should be removed any time it interferes with hearing, hearing aid function or tests of hearing. Methods include curette, suction and irrigation. A curette is a loop inserted into the canal that allows us to directly remove the wax under magnification. For wet wax, suction may be effective. Using wax softener liquid often helps with suction. Irrigation is a forceful stream of water into the canal. This must be done with extreme care, as a jet of water can damage the ear drum. Our preferred methods are curette and suction, depending on the ear and the wax.

Unfortunately, there is no reliable method to prevent the buildup of a natural secretion. Do not ever use cotton swabs or lit candles to remove wax. The best solution is to have a professional assess the canal and remove wax in the method he or she is most comfortable with. We clear cerumen daily in our offices. As always, we wish to keep you on a Clear Path to good hearing and ear health.