Did you know that ear wax in the ear (known in medical terms as cerumen) is actually healthy for you? Studies have shown that ear wax contains antibacterial properties as well as lubricants to protect the ear canal. Ear wax also contains probiotics, which are healthy bacteria and yeast that live in and on our bodies. Some people make more ear wax than others, especially as we reach our senior years. Ear wax can also come in different colors, from white to yellow to dark brown, and can have different consistencies ranging from sticky to flaky dry wax.
Ear wax is formed by tiny glands within the ear canal. The function of ear wax is to protect and lubricate the ear by also trapping dirt, debris and dead skin cells. Over time, the ear wax is transported with help of jaw movement to the very end of the ear canal where it dries and falls out. The ears therefore are self-cleaning and do not need help from Qtips, bobby pins, or other objects that can damage the canal. Excessive cleaning of the ear canal can lead to dry, itchy ears, leading to further use of Qtips, etc. and set up a vicious cycle as well as make the ear canal more susceptible to infection. Qtips have also been known to push ear wax further into the canal, leading to impactions, hearing loss, and rarely ear drum perforations.
Hearing aid users and those who wear ear buds all day may suffer from excessive buildup of ear wax as the ear canal is blocked and unable to clear itself out. In these cases, regular cleaning of the ears by an ENT, primary care provider, audiologist or other medical provider trained in safe ear cleaning is recommended at least 1-2 times a year.
People who have excessive build up may benefit from home treatments that can soften the wax and help encourage the ear to self-clean. Using a few drops of mineral oil or baby oil in the ears can help as well as carbamide peroxide (otherwise known as Debrox) or hydrogen peroxide drops. If develop ear pain or drainage, visit your ENT as excessive wax can sometimes lead to outer ear infections (acute otitis externa), also known as “swimmer’s ear.” Most of the time, if we just let the ears do their “job,” they should not require your help, so stop cleaning your ears out with Qtips!