I seem to make a lot of earwax. Why does that happen? When it blocks my hearing, how can I safely remove it?
Answer: Earwax (cerumen) is made in the ear canal and serves four main purposes:
— It moisturises the skin to prevent dryness and itching.
— It helps protect the canal and eardrum from damage.
— It helps stop bacteria from multiplying, so it helps prevent infections.
— It keeps the ear clean. The oily substance made by the cells lining the ear canal mixes with the dead skin and debris inside. The mixture then slowly moves out of the ear.
The consistency of earwax ranges from liquid to rock-hard. It depends on the makeup of the wax. It also depends on how long the wax has been in the canal. The higher the proportion of dead skin cells and hair, the harder the wax. And the longer the mixture has been in the ear canal, the harder the wax.
The ear should remove wax naturally. There are instances where it might get blocked.
— Your ear canal is especially narrow or curvy.
— You have a skin condition, such as eczema, that is affecting the canal.
— You have excessive hair growth in the canal.
— You have been trying to clean your ears with a Q-tip. This can push the wax further back into the ear canal, where it builds up and hardens.
— You wear a hearing aid or ear plugs.
You only need to remove earwax if it causes problems with hearing, ringing in the ear or an earache.
To unblock the wax you can try using an over-the-counter ear cleaning treatment to flush out the wax. Do not try this if you have a history of ear drum perforation or have had ear surgery. If you aren’t successful clearing the earwax, make an appointment with your doctor.
Never try to dig out earwax with something like a Q-tip, paper clip or hairpin. That could push it further into the canal or injure your eardrum. Another procedure to avoid is ear candling. That’s when you use a lighted hollow candle to stick into the ear. This doesn’t work, and it could do serious harm.
Preventing earwax blockage is difficult. People with frequent blockages may use an earwax softener once a week to help keep the wax from hardening and building up.
But earwax is there for a purpose. It doesn’t normally need to be removed. In general, your best bet is simply to clean your outer ear with a washcloth. And leave wax removal to your ear’s own self-cleaning mechanism.
Howard LeWine, MD, is an internist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston and assistant professor at Harvard Medical School. For additional consumer health information, please visit www.health.harvard.edu.
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