Ear wax—one way or another, we’ve all experienced it. Whether yours is sticky, gooey, flaky or crusty, ear wax is simply a part of life. But what exactly 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.
Why Do We Have Ear Wax?
Ear wax actually has a few important jobs:
- 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.
- 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 ear drum and inner ear.
- 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 any bugs do manage to break their way in, they’ll get captured in ear wax’s sticky trap, then tumble out later along with the rest of the gunk.
- 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 an antimicrobial effect on its own, when combined they increase in power and effectiveness. And the pH level of ear wax actually provides ideal conditions for this collaborative power to take place.
Why Does Ear Wax Build Up in the Ear?
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.
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.
How Does Ear Wax Affect Hearing?
If too much ear wax builds up, it can block the ear canal. The 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.
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 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 them down with a soft, dry cloth.
- Use the pick and brush included in your cleaning kit. 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 wax from your hearing aids or send them out for repairs, if needed.
How Can I Safely Remove Ear Wax?
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 for removing ear wax:
- 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 notes:
- 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 ear drum.
- 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 are not effective, consult your doctor. They can prescribe special drops or remove impacted ear wax via irrigation or manual extraction.