Can Overproduction of Ear Wax Cause Hearing Loss?

Last update on Feb, 28, 2018
Victoria Zambrano

Dr. Victoria Zambrano, Au.D.

Miracle-Ear Audiologist

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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 this golden-hued goo, why does the body produce it, and how does it affect our health?

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.

Why do we have ear wax?

Ear wax benefits the body in several ways. These natural functions of ear wax include:

  • Ear Wax is a Moisturizer. Due to its oily, waxy nature, ear wax is an effective moisturizer for the ear canal, keeping it clean and lubricated. Too little ear wax can leave your ears dry, itchy and flaky, making you more prone to scratching them—which puts them at greater risk for irritation and infection.
  • Ear Wax is a Protective Barrier. Ear wax is a natural protective barrier—helping trap dirt, dust and other grime before it has a chance to reach (and potentially damage) your eardrum and inner ear.
  • Ear Wax is a Bug Repellent. The smell of this waxy substance actually shoos away small, curious insects, who can sometimes fly or crawl their way into the ear (yuck). If bugs do manage to break their way in, they’ll get caught in ear wax’s sticky trap, then tumble out later along with the rest of the gunk.
  • Ear Wax is an Antibiotic. Ear wax is your ear’s local defense system. Researchers have identified several important antimicrobial peptides present in ear wax. These peptides work together to protect against a broad range of bacteria and fungi, preventing them from growing and infecting the ear. While each peptide has its own antimicrobial effect they become more powerful and effective when combined. The pH level of ear wax provides ideal conditions for this collaborative action to take place.

Is ear wax bad? Why does ear wax build up in the ear?

While ear wax is good for your ears and overall hearing health there can be too much of a good thing. The body will produce as much ear wax as it needs, but sometimes it can produce too much. This overproduction of ear wax causes 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 of it, 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 blockage. Impacted ear wax can cause a host of issues, including infections, ear aches—even hearing loss. Ear wax can even make your hearing aids function less than optimally. Learn how to clean your hearing aids.

Ear care 101: How to Safely Clean Your Ears at Home

Follow these easy steps to take care of your ears, improve your hearing and reduce the risks of hearing loss.

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How does ear wax affect hearing?

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 of too much wax build up 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.

Conductive types 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.

This is why it's important to identify an overproduction of ear wax early on. By recognizing the buildup, you can remove the impacted ear wax before it has a chance to cause irreversible damage to your hearing health.

How do hearing aids and ear wax work together?

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 also 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:

  • Wipe down your hearing aids with a soft, dry cloth.
  • Use the pick and brush included in your cleaning kit to remove wax particles on your devices. Tip: Dry wax is easier to remove than wet, sticky wax. Take off your hearing aids at night, then wait until the morning to remove the wax. This will allow time for the wax to dry out.
  • Visit your hearing care provider, who should be able to help clean any remaining wax from your hearing aids or send them out for repairs, if needed.

How to clean hearing aids

It's easy to care for your hearing aid. We have a perfect three step cleaning routine that you can follow to ensure your device lasts long and performs its best.

How can I safely clean my ears at home?

Most of the time, ear wax doesn’t need to be removed—our bodies will naturally produce and expel it. However, if you’re experiencing an overproduction of ear wax and have symptoms of 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 beforehand.)

Home remedies to safely clean your ears:

  • Ear Drops – Placing a few drops into the ear can often soften the wax to help work its way out. Doctors recommend a variety of oil- and water-based ear drops, available in most pharmacies. Oil-based drops include mineral oil and baby oil, as well as almond and olive oil. Water-based drops typically use hydrogen peroxide, acetic acid or sodium bicarbonate.
  • Irrigation Kits – At-home irrigation kits are commercially available. These kits typically use water and saline-based solutions to help soften and flush out the wax.

A few important safety notes on cleaning your ears:

  • Never insert anything into the ear canal, such as cotton swabs. This can actually push the ear wax further into the canal, causing blockage and/or damaging the eardrum.
  • Do not use irrigation kits if you have diabetes, a weakened immune system, ear tubes or a hole in the ear drum. If water gets into the middle ear, it can cause a serious infection.

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.

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