What is Ear Wax?
The production of ear wax, technically called cerumen, is a normal function of the ear. Oily secretions from the sweat and sebaceous glands in the ear canal combine with other particles such as dirt and dead skin cells to form the substance we know as ear wax.
Cerumen has antibacterial and antifungal properties which protects the ear. It also cleans our ears as it naturally moves out of the ear canal with the assistance of jaw movements when we chew or talk. Its appearance can be wet or dry and is different for different people. Some nationalities such as those of Asian descent are more likely to have dry earwax. Skin conditions such as eczema may also cause ear wax to appear more dry or flaky. The colour of ear wax may be different depending on the type of environment you are in. People who work in more dusty environments may be more likely to have darker coloured ear wax.
Is it a bad thing?
Having wax in your ears is actually a good thing due to its protective and cleaning properties. However, having too much or too little cerumen in the ear can cause problems such as ear infections. Excessive cerumen production can also result in hearing loss, tinnitus and can cause aches and discomfort.
Sometimes some individuals just naturally produce a lot of cerumen and are more prone to wax blockages in their ears. Wax can block the ear canal if it sits there for too long and becomes hard. Hearing aid users may also notice that their ears block up with wax more easily due to the hearing aid stopping wax from making its way out of the ear canal.
How do I remove it?
For most people, the best thing to do is to allow the ear to clean itself naturally. Ear wax will work its way out of the ear canal and can be wiped away from the outside of the ear.
Cotton buds, paper clips bobby pins are not recommended. There is a risk of pushing the wax in further towards the ear drum and causing it to become impacted or causing physical harm to your ear. Ear candling is also not recommended as it is not a proven method of removing ear wax and there are risks of causing more harm than good (see Audiology Australia’s Position Statement on ear candling)
The use of commercially available wax drops may be beneficial. To use these, tilt the head and apply a few drops into the ear canal. Keep the head tilted for a few minutes to allow the drops to soak into the wax. Press a tissue or cotton ball to the ear and tilt the head the other way to allow everything to drain out. Sometimes the use of drops alone is enough to remove any wax blockages, but for more severely impacted wax, the help of a clinician is recommended.
Ear, Nose and Throat specialists and other clinicians with appropriate training can use microsuction to remove ear wax. Some clinicians may also scoop the wax out with a curette. These options are safer options if seeking help from a professional.
If you are unsure whether you are experiencing hearing loss because of impacted wax, an audiologist can inspect your ears, perform a test of middle ear function and do a hearing assessment before providing recommendations about what to do next.