The production in our ears of the oily substance known as cerumen, or ear wax, is both a natural thing, and a beneficial one. This wax coats the inner surface of our ear canals and protects the tiny hair follicles that vibrate when sound waves touch them, and thus help us to hear. This fine coating of ear wax attracts and collects foreign particles that enter the ear, such as dirt and dust, bacteria, and other microorganisms. Ear wax also helps to protect the sensitive skin of the inner ear canal, especially when it is exposed to water when we shower, bathe, or go swimming.
Normally, ear wax eventually gravitates to the opening of the ear, where it either falls out or is removed when we shower or bathe. But in some people, the glands in their ears produce more wax than normal. Over time it can accumulate and harden, or become impacted as the result of trying to remove it using cotton swabs or Q-tips. This can block the ear canal and prevent sound waves from reaching your inner ear. The resulting buildup of ear wax is one of the most common causes of hearing loss, in people of all ages.
What are the symptoms of excess ear wax?
Common symptoms of ear wax blockage include persistent earaches or itching, a feeling that your ears are plugged up, or a constant and persistent ringing noise, referred to by doctors and audiologists as tinnitus. This can lead to a partial loss of hearing, one that gets progressively worse over time. This is a type of conductive hearing loss, in which the sound waves are blocked from getting to the eardrum.
Fortunately, this type of hearing loss (as opposed to sensorineural hearing loss, caused by other more serious physiological conditions) is easily diagnosed and treated. If the symptoms listed above sound familiar to you, see your doctor or audiologist. They can perform simple and painless test to determine whether your symptoms or hearing loss are related to an accumulation of ear wax. If this is the case, the buildup of ear wax can be easily removed, either in your doctor's office or at home.
Cleaning your ears of excess ear wax at home
If your doctor has diagnosed you as having an excessive buildup of ear wax, or even if you just suspect that you have one, there are simple steps you can Do at home to remove it. But first, a few Don'ts:
• Don't try to remove excessive ear wax using cotton swabs, Q-tips, or any other implement you insert into your ears. This is more likely to impact the excess ear wax than to remove it, and you risk the possibility of scratching the sensitive skin of the inner ear or damaging your eardrum.
• Don't use so-called "ear candles." These are often found in health food stores or sold by alternative health care providers, and are essentially a cone made of paper or cloth soaked in paraffin or beeswax. The narrow end of the cone is inserted into the ear and the other end is set on fire. The theory is that the heated air in the cone will melt the ear wax and it will be drawn up by the vacuum created by the fire into the cone and dissolved. These have been found in clinical trials not to work, and worse, pose the risk of serious injury.
• Don't use a Waterpik or similar jet irrigator designed to clean your teeth, because the force of the spray is far too great to use in the ears, and could potentially damage your eardrums.
• Don't attempt to irrigate or forcefully wash out your ears at home if you know that your eardrum has been punctured at any point in the past.
These advisories passed along, the safe and effective Do's are as follows:
• Soften the accumulated ear wax by inserting into each ear a few drops of mineral oil or baby oil, glycerin, or commercial ear drops made for this purpose and sold at pharmacies.
• Allow the drops to remain in the ear for a few minutes to loosen the wax.
• Finally, gently rinse the loosened wax out, using body-temperature water. Using hot or cold water may create feelings of vertigo or dizziness, and is not advised. Pharmacies sell small bulb-like syringes that can be used for this purpose.
If this procedure does not clear up the obstruction, see your doctor. Doctors and audiologists can use more specialized tools such as a small, spoon-shaped curette to remove the blockage, or use better forms of irrigation or suction to remove it.