Say What?

Posted January 10, 2008 in Mind Body Spirit

This week the IE Weekly is seriously bringing sexy back by telling you everything you ever wanted to know about earwax. As gross as it may sound or look, that yellowy earwax is actually something you want. Put down your Q-Tips and pay attention.

The ear canal is lined with both hair follicles and glands that produce a waxy oil called cerumen. This applies to everyone, not just old men. According to the American Academy of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery (ear, nose and throat doctors), this substance protects the ear by trapping dust, microorganisms and other foreign particles, preventing them from entering and damaging the eardrum. Usually the wax accumulates a bit, dries out and then flakes out of the ear, carrying dirt and dust with it, or—in its more liquid form—it may slowly move to the outside of the ear canal where it can be wiped off. Earwax is absolutely healthy in normal amounts; in fact, its absence may result in dry, itchy ears.

Yet with some folks, the glands produce more wax than can be easily excreted from the ear. This extra wax may harden within the ear canal and hurt or block the ear. Usually in such cases, the culprit is excessive and/or incorrect cleaning rather than a prolificacy of earwax. In fact, most blockages are caused when people have been probing their ear canals with cotton-tipped applicators. These bad boys only push the wax in deeper, pressing it up against the eardrum.

Heed this warning because blockages can cause hearing loss, pain and cough. Hearing loss can occur when the wax completely blocks the ear canal, preventing sound waves from easily reaching the eardrum. Blockages can also cause pain by putting pressure on sensitive ear canal walls. Finally, since the ear canal shares some of the same nerves which give sensation to the throat, earwax can provoke a tickling sensation in the throat, which can then lead to cough. Symptoms of wax buildup include partial hearing loss (possibly progressive), tinnitus (noises in the ear), earache or a sensation that the ear is plugged.

Despite our society’s general love affair with both Q-Tips and hygiene, you should actually never have to clean your ear canals. However, if a jaundiced ear hole freaks you out, you can wash the external ear with a cloth over a finger. Do not insert anything into the ear canal, and that includes those Q-Tips. 

If you need even more inspiration to keep those little white sticks out of your ears, keep in mind that you can damage the eardrum if the swab is inserted too deeply. You can also accidentally scratch the ear canal skin, causing a painful infection called otitis externa (swimmer’s ear). Which raises the paradoxical question: Why take the risk when the reason the wax exists in the first place is to protect the ear canal skin and eardrum?

For those who are suffering from an actual earwax blockage, a variety of home treatments can soften wax if there is no hole in the eardrum (in these cases, see a doctor for removal). Try placing a few drops of mineral oil, baby oil, glycerin or commercial earwax removal drops, such as Debrox, Mack’s Wax AwayTM or Murine, in the ear. They aren’t as strong as the prescription wax softeners but are usually effective. 

Final note—you may have heard of “ear candling,” a technique that involves placing a lighted, hollow, cone-shaped candle into your ear. The theory is that the heat from the flame will create a vacuum seal and the earwax will adhere to the candle. But, research has found that ear candling doesn’t actually work and most experts think it’s dangerous. Skip it!





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