That sticky, yellowish goo that sometimes comes out of your ears can be a bit gross, but it’s actually a vital part of your body’s natural defences.
Without it, you’d be in trouble. So what is the purpose of earwax?
Read on to find out everything you need to know about earwax and how to tell when you should see a professional about it.
What Is Earwax Made Out Of?
Earwax, or cerumen, is still a widely misunderstood substance. Our bodies excrete a lot of unpleasant stuff but earwax, though it may fit the bill, actually has a lot of benefits to the overall health of your ears.
But what is earwax made out of? And how is earwax formed?
Primarily, it consists of sweat, oil, dead skin cells, and dirt. These ingredients come together and form a layer of waxy residue around the ear canal.
It can be dark brown, yellow, even white and flaky. Wet earwax is more commonly found in Caucasians and Africans. Native Americans, Pacific Islanders, and Asians tend to have more dry earwax.
The consistency of earwax can also depend on age. When you were a child, your earwax would’ve been soft and light coloured. As we get older, it can become harder, darker, and more brittle.
Some people produce more than others and many factors can increase production. A lot of hair in the ear canal, excess stress, ear infections, and skin conditions are a few examples of what can affect cerumen production.
What Is The Purpose of Earwax?
You have no doubt heard of the negative effects of excess earwax. However, unless you have a blocked ear or impacted earwax, a normal amount is beneficial to your ear health.
Earwax forms a protective layer around your ear canal. Since it is sticky, it acts as a barrier and traps foreign objects, like dust and grit, from reaching deeper into your ear. This adds a level of protection to your eardrum.
Your eardrum also benefits from the protection from bacteria. Cerumen prevents microscopic attackers from reaching the inner ear.
Insects are repelled by the smell of earwax. Although if a bug is small enough and undeterred by the smell, it can get into the canal. The wax should trap it before it can get too deep and do any damage.
It also helps to keep the skin of your ear canal clean and in good shape. The layer of wax keeps the skin moisturized and helps protect it from drying out and becoming itchy and flaky. Earwax naturally migrates out of your ear canal and takes debris with it.
All this being said, you can have too much earwax. Excess earwax blocking ear canals can cause problems with hearing, pain, and infections.
Why do Ears Get Blocked with Wax?
Many factors, both internal and external, contribute to blockages.
If your home environment or your work environment is dirty or if they have lots of debris in the air, like dust, it can cause your ears to produce more than normal amounts of cerumen.
The weather is another factor that can cause excess earwax production. Cold weather can make you produce extra earwax as a defensive barrier against the low temperature.
Sustained periods in cold temperatures can also cause earwax to harden. This can be painful and form blockages in the ear canal.
Another way your body can react to cold weather, in particular, sustained exposure to cold wind and water, is exostosis. This is a defensive reaction by the body to create a barrier against cold air and moisture.
Exostosis is a benign growth of new bone, in this case on the temporal bone in the skull, that can squeeze the ear canal closed and trap unwanted debris and water. This can cause pain and lead to infections as well as make it easier for blockages to occur.
Exostosis can occur all over the body, but when it occurs on the temporal bone of the skull and blocks the ear canal, it is called surfer’s ear.
The shape of your ear canal can also make it susceptible to blockages. Narrow or misshapen ear canals, caused by infections, excess hair growth, or naturally restricted, are often contributing factors.
Narrow canals make it possible for less cerumen to form a blockage.
Risks of Earwax Buildup
If left untreated, excess earwax production can lead to other, more serious problems.
Impacted earwax is one such problem, which can be worsened by additional factors, such as frequent foreign objects put into the ear canal. Cotton swabs, earbuds, and hearing aids can all cause impacted earwax.
It can also be caused by skin conditions, infections, or any of the previously mentioned causes of blockages.
Overproduction of earwax can form a kind of dam in your ear canal that lets water in but stops it from running out.
Trapped water can make the skin of your ear canal soft and absorbent. The lack of protection from moisture makes your ear canal skin vulnerable to bacteria, which can cause infection or irritation.
Many of the conditions associated with wax buildup, as well as causing pain and discomfort, can also have adverse effects on your hearing.
When You Should Get Earwax Removed?
Make your eardrops using an equal mixture of white vinegar and isopropyl alcohol (rubbing alcohol). Or your local pharmacist may be able to assist you with the purchase of something similar.
Tilt your head to one side and apply 3 or 4 drops to the affected ear. Wait a few seconds and carefully tip your head to the other side. It’s handy to hold a tissue to your ear to catch any escaping liquid.
Vinegar and isopropyl alcohol are both antimicrobial and the alcohol will help evaporate any residual water.
Please note, don’t use ear drops if you suspect your eardrum is perforated or you have an ear infection (i.e. any ear pain, swelling, discharge or discomfort). And of course don’t try this method if you have eardrum tubes, also known as tympanostomy tubes.
If you experience any pain or discomfort using eardrops please seek medical advice.
Methods of Earwax Removal
There are 2 prominent methods of earwax removal. Microsuction and syringing.
Microsuction is the process of inserting a thin tube into the ear canal using a microscope and employing suction to remove earwax and debris.
Syringing uses water pressure to wash out the ear canal. This method is considered to be less effective than microsuction. There are more risks to the patient including eardrum rupture and the experience is generally messy and uncomfortable.
There are also some even less effective methods such as ear candling.
Although earwax can sometimes cause problems with your ears, it exists to help maintain healthy outer ears and to protect your hearing equipment from damage and infection.
Prioritising your ear health with regular checkups with a medical professional is a surefire way to preserve your ear health and avoid any problems that could lead to lasting effects.
Hopefully, this article has cleared up some questions you may have had, like what is the purpose of earwax, and how important it is to ear health.
If you have experienced any of these issues, or want to get your ears checked, book an appointment today.