Why Do We Have Ear Wax?

Wax glands found in the outer part of the ear canal produce a shiny, sticky substance called ear wax or cerumen. Cerumen consists of 20% to 50% fat and is naturally produced by the body. So, why exactly do we have ear wax? Ear wax helps to protect, clean and lubricate the ears. However, ear wax sometimes builds up in excess, which needs to be removed.

Why Do We Have Ear Wax?

Although scientists are still working to get a full understanding of its usage, ear wax does have a lot of benefits. It has chemicals that fight off infections that could affect the skin inside the ear canal. Ear wax cleans the ears and shields the eardrum from the outside world. It traps dirt, dust and any other things that could make their way into the ear. Ear wax also prevents dry, itchy ears by moisturizing and protecting the skin of the ear canal.

The appearance of cerumen varies from person to person. It could be flaky and dry, almost liquid or solid and firm. The color also varies based on composition. Ear wax may contain different components including sloughed skin cells, glandular secretions, water and normal bacteria found on the surface of the ear canal.

What Happens If I Have Excessive Ear Wax?

The question "Why do we have ear wax?" is already answered, but what if we have excess ear wax? Ear wax appearance ranges from light yellow to dark brown. However, darker ear wax is not necessarily an indication of blockage. Here are the signs of ear wax build up:

  • Full feeling in the ear
  • A buzzing or ringing in the ear (tinnitus)
  • Earache
  • Sudden partial hearing loss, usually temporary

Ear wax build up can cause an infection if not removed. Symptoms of an infection due to ear wax build up are listed below:

  • Fever
  • Dizziness
  • Coughing
  • A smell coming from your ear
  • Persistent hearing loss
  • Persistent pain in the ear
  • Drainage coming from the ear
  • Severe ear pain

Apart from accumulation of excess ear wax, dizziness, hearing loss and earaches can be caused by other conditions. Make sure you see your doctor if any of these symptoms occur frequently. You should be subjected to a full medical examination to ascertain whether the symptoms are due to excess wax or another health problem altogether.

How to Remove Excessive Ear Wax

After "Why do we have ear wax?" the next question is how to get rid of ear wax builup. Excessive ear wax removal at home can be done using cotton swabs on the outer ear only. Digging into the inner ear may damage your ears, lead to an infection or hearing loss. Here is how to go about it:

1. Soften Your Ear wax

Over-the-counter drops for softening ear wax are available in the market. You can also use the substances like hydrogen peroxide, baby oil, carbamide peroxide, glycerin and mineral oil.

Let's use baby oil as an example to describe how to use these solutions:

  • Put two to five drops of baby oil into the affected ear with an ear dropper. Ensure you tilt the ear towards the sky as you do it.
  • To keep the oil in the ear, place a cotton ball at the opening of the ear and let it stand for some minutes.
  • Remove the cotton ball and tilt your head towards the opposite direction to drain any extra oil.
  • Use a soft cloth to clean the ear opening.

2. Try Ear Irrigation

Ear wax buildup can also be removed by irrigating the ear. However, do not irrigate your ear if you have undergone a medical procedure on your ear or you have an injury. You risk an infection or even hearing loss by irrigating a ruptured eardrum. Never use products meant for mouth or teeth irrigation since they produce more force than your eardrum can handle. For ear irrigation, you either follow the steps on the over-the-counter kit or the ones described here:

  • Sit or stand with your head upright.
  • Pull the outside of your ear gently upward.
  • Direct a stream of water at body temperature into your ear using a syringe. You may feel dizzy if the water is too cold or too warm.
  • Tip your head to allow the water to drain.

You may need to do this severally. Routine ear irrigations will help prevent wax build up.

3. Seek Medical Help

Although we know from the answer to "Why do we have ear wax?" that it is beneficial, but sometimes we need medical help to get excessive ear wax for our health. For most people, ear wax removal does not require frequent medical help. Cleaning once a year during you annual doctor’s appointment is usually enough to prevent blockage. Visit your doctor if your ear becomes irritated or if you are unable to remove the wax. You should also be aware that other medical conditions may cause similar symptoms to ear wax buildup. Your doctor ought to rule out those first.

A lighted instrument with a magnifier called an otoscope is used by medics to inspect your ear. Your doctor can remove the wax build up with either a small curved instrument called a curette or by suction or irrigation. Be keen to follow your doctor’s instructions regarding aftercare.

Most people are known to do well after ear wax buildup is removed with normal hearing resuming immediately. However, those people who produce too much wax may experience buildup again in the future.

Ear Candling Is Not Recommended

Ear candles are hollow cones made of beeswax and paraffin and have a cloth on the tapered end. One end is usually lit while the tapered end is placed in the ear. A vacuum is created in the ear as the flame burns. This vacuum draws the wax out of the ear. However, a few clinical trials have shown that no vacuum is created and no wax is drawn out of the ear. What's more, ear candling may lead to serious injury. 

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