It comes in many different forms and textures, but we all have it and we all deal with it: ear wax. But while it’s a normal part of life, could waxy ears also diminish your ability to hear? And do you know how to safely get rid of it?
Miracle-Ear expert audiologist Victoria Zambrano answers some of the most common questions about how excessive ear wax buildup can affect your overall hearing 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.
Ear wax benefits the body in a few ways, helping with natural functions:
While ear wax is good for your ears and overall hearing health, there can be too much of a good thing. The body will usually only produce as much ear wax as it needs, but sometimes it can create too much. This overproduction causes ear wax buildup and ear canal blockage. Several factors can influence ear wax production, including diet, stress and hygiene. Studies have shown that consuming foods rich in omega 3 fatty acids (found in food, such as fish, flaxseed and walnuts) reduces the chance of excess ear wax buildup.
If you’re prone to picking out wax with a cotton swab (or your finger), stop and take note: regularly removing ear wax actually triggers the body to produce more of it than your body needs, causing a buildup.
Excess ear wax can harden and dry up over time, and this impacted ear wax can cause a host of issues, including infections, earaches—even hearing loss. Ear wax buildup can also make your hearing aids function less than optimally, which is just one reason why you should learn how to clean your hearing aids and do it regularly.
If there is too much ear wax buildup, it can block the ear canal acting as a sonic barricade that prevent sound waves from passing from the outer ear to the inner ear.
This is a type of conductive hearing loss—the term for hearing loss caused by issues with the ear canal, ear drum or middle ear. Sound waves need to travel through the ear canal in order to be converted into electrical signals that are processed by the brain. When those sound waves can’t travel—or be conducted—through the canal, it results in a hearing loss. Ear canal blockage from wax is actually one of the leading causes of conductive hearing loss, which can make softer sounds more difficult to hear, and make louder sounds seem muffled.
Follow these easy steps to take care of your ears, improve your hearing and reduce the risks of hearing loss. There are several different types of hearing loss, and each can have different causes, take a look at some of them.
Conductive types of hearing loss can often be temporary. If impacted ear wax is the culprit, its removal in a safe and timely manner can 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 have it removed before it has a chance to cause irreversible damage to your hearing.
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, and 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, as well as the receiver and other parts of your devices. The acidic nature of ear wax can also damage hearing aids' delicate electrical components. In fact, ear wax buildup is one of the most common reasons for hearing aid repairs.
Most of the time, ear wax doesn’t need to be removed—our bodies will naturally produce and expel it. However, if you feel like you have waxy ears or have symptoms of buildup or impacted ear wax (such as earache, itching, tinnitus or a feeling of fullness in the ear), it’s worth getting evaluated by your doctor.
You can also try a few home treatments to remove ear wax. Note: Even if you look up how to clean your ears at home you should consult your doctor or hearing care professional before actually doing it.
Home remedies to safely clean your ears:
Never insert anything into the ear canal, including cotton swabs. Doing so can 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.