What is ear wax? One way or another, we’ve all experienced ear wax. Whether yours is sticky, gooey, flaky or crusty, ear wax is simply a part of life. But what exactly is ear wax? What is this mysterious, golden-hued goo, why does our body produce it, and how does it affect the health of our ears and hearing?
Medically referred to as cerumen (pronounced seh-ROO-men), ear wax is a normal, naturally occurring substance secreted in the ear canal—the gateway between your outer and inner ear. Ear wax is made up of secretions from the sebaceous and sweat glands, as well as sloughed off skin cells from the ear. Ear wax usually picks up a few more microscopic friends, such as hair, dirt and other tiny debris as it slowly migrates to the outer ear. The waxy mixture then naturally makes the outward journey, usually nudged along by talking, chewing and other jaw motions.
The purpose of ear wax is multifaceted. Ear wax has a few purposes:
While ear wax is good for your ears and overall hearing health, as we all know, there can be too much of a good thing. The body will produce as much ear wax as it needs. Sometimes it can produce too much, causing cerumen (ear wax) buildup and ear blockage. Several factors can influence ear wax production, including diet, stress and hygiene. Studies have shown that consuming omega 3 fatty acids (found in food, such as fish, flaxseed and walnuts) reduces the chance of ear wax buildup.
If you’re prone to picking out wax with a cotton swab (or your finger), stop, drop and take note: regularly removing ear wax actually triggers the body to produce even more wax, which can result in excessive ear wax.
Ear wax, in and of itself, is not a bad thing. However, too much ear wax in the ear canal can harden and dry up over time, increasing the risk of it becoming impacted. Impacted ear wax can cause a host of issues, including infections, ear aches—even hearing loss.
If too much ear wax builds up, it can block the ear canal. This overproduction of ear wax then acts as a sort of sonic barricade, preventing sound waves from passing through to the inner ear from the outer ear. Sound waves need to travel through the ear canal in order to be converted into electrical signals that are processed by the brain.
The result is conductive hearing loss—the name for hearing loss caused by issues with the ear canal, ear drum or middle ear. Ear blockage from wax is actually one of the leading causes of conductive hearing loss. Conductive hearing loss can make softer sounds more difficult to hear, and make louder sounds more muffled.
This type of hearing loss can often be temporary—for example, if impacted ear wax is the culprit, it can be removed in a safe and timely manner to reverse the hearing loss. However, if impacted ear wax is left untreated in the canal for too long, it can potentially lead to more permanent hearing loss. Researchers have found that mice exposed to conductive hearing loss over the course of a year experienced lasting damage to the inner ear.
It’s important to recognize and remove impacted ear wax before it has a chance to cause irreversible damage to your hearing health.
Hearing aids that rest in the ear can block the natural journey ear wax must take to exit the ear. This ear blockage can actually stimulate the ear canal glands to produce more wax. Some hearing aid wearers report having more ear wax after getting hearing aids.
If you wear hearing aids, it’s important to keep on top of ear wax, as it can block your ears (and hearing), as well as the receiver and other parts of your hearing aid device. The acidic nature of ear wax can damage the delicate electrical components. In fact, ear wax buildup is one of the most common reasons for hearing aid repairs.
How to clean ear wax from hearing aids:
Ear wax doesn’t need to be removed most of the time—our bodies will naturally produce and expel it. However, if you’re experiencing symptoms of ear wax buildup or impacted ear wax (such as earache, itching, tinnitus or a sensation of fullness in/plugging of the ear), it’s worth getting evaluated by your doctor.
You can also try a few home treatments to remove ear wax. (Note: You may want to consult your doctor or hearing care provider first before going the DIY route.)
Home remedies to safely clean your ears:
A few important notes:
If the at-home methods of cleaning your ears are not effective, consult your doctor. They can prescribe special drops or remove impacted ear wax via irrigation or manual extraction.