Health

Why We Have Earwax

Also known as cerumen, earwax is the yellow wax-like substance secreted by special glands in our ear canal. While it is normal for it to differ slightly in terms of appearance, consistence and amount, major differences such as a buildup consistent enough to muffle hearing or reddish or black color require the attention of a medical professional. Aside from a few characteristics which fall into the normal range, any major and disturbing change in earwax appearance is likely to indicate the onset of an infection or other medical condition.

What is earwax? Earwax is a wax-like secretion produced by sebaceous and modified sweat glands in our ear canal. It is produced with the purpose of protecting the opening of the ear. After it is secreted, earwax slowly travels towards the opening of the ear canal along with any particles that might have made their way in, thus preventing any potential infection. Moreover, recent studies suggest earwax has natural antimicrobial and even antifungal properties and can actively help prevent ear infections by stopping bacteria and fungi growth. So having earwax is a good sign as it’s good for the health of the entire ear.

What does earwax look like?

1) Wet earwax. This is common in European and African peoples. It is called wet earwax because it has a softer consistency, resembling candle wax when it’s warm and about to melt. This type of earwax generally has a golden-brown color.
2) Dry earwax. This type is common in Asian and Native American peoples. It is called dry earwax because it has a dry consistency, looking a lot like dry skin flakes. This type of earwax has a whitish-grayish color.

Why do we have ear wax?

Having earwax is crucial for ear health and serves several important purposes:

1) Protection. Earwax coats the skin of the ear canal and protects the eardrum. Thanks to it, any water that may get inside our ear when we shower or swim simply rolls out without soaking the skin. If the ear is in contact with water too often, then there might not be sufficient earwax to protect the ear from moisture and infections such as external otitis (or swimmer’s ear) may occur. This is because moisture creates the perfect environment for bacteria growth.

2) Natural cleaning and lubrication. Because of its consistency, earwax helps keep the skin inside the ear moist, preventing it from drying out. The lipids in the cerumen are the ones that help preserve moisture. Moreover, as earwax progresses towards the exit of the ear canal, it takes with it any external particles (dust, sand, pollen) that might have made their way inside. This self-cleaning mechanism occurs naturally and helps prevent both infection and earwax buildup that may cause muffled hearing and other long-term hearing problems.

3) Antimicrobial properties. According to more recent research, earwax exhibits antimicrobial properties against several bacteria and fungi strains. Earwax may protect against Escherichia coli, Staphylococcus aureus etc. as well as several fungus strains. It is believed that the saturated fatty acids and acidic pH of earwax are the reason why opportunistic microbes do not infect the ear.

How to clean earwax. Generally, washing our hair is enough to help clear earwax deposits as the water that pours down our head will soften and clean out the earwax that has already migrated towards the outside of the ear canal. Gently drying the outside of the ear with a clean washcloth is sufficient.

While our ears clean themselves naturally, some people may need to clean their ear canal manually to help take out any earwax deposits. However, this should be done very carefully to avoid damaging the skin of the ear canal or perforate the eardrum.

Why you shouldn’t use cottons swabs to clean your ears. Using cotton swabs should be avoided because, unless the earwax is soft, and even then, they can push it further in and cause it to become compacted. This can block sound and lead to hearing problems. Pushing the cotton swab too far inside the ear canal can hurt the eardrum or perforate it which will lead to hearing problems and hearing loss. Cleaning earwax plugs is best done by a medical professional to prevent any complications.

Experts agree that softening problematic earwax with lukewarm water or oils such as baby oil, olive oil etc. can help soften the wax and promote its elimination. Other ceruminolytics or cerumenolytics (substances introduced into the external ear canal to help soften wax) include: hydrogen peroxide-urea, glycerine, sodium bicarbonate, sodium docusate or commercial ceruminolytics are also available.

Home remedies

Use baking soda
Dissolve 1/2 teaspoon of baking soda in 2 ounces of hot water.
If you have a dropping bottle, poor the mixture into it.
Tilt your head aside and gently add 5 to 10 drops of solution into the ear, drop by drop.
Leave the solution in the ear for up to an hour, then rinses with water.
Do it once a day. It can put this mixture in to your ear within a few days. It does not work for more than two weeks.

Hydrogen peroxide

You can use it in your ears at home using 3% hydrogen peroxide.

Tilt your head aside and drop hydrogen peroxide into your ear.
Hold your head tilted to the side for five minutes.
Do it once a day for 3 to 14 days.

Oil

Earwax is a substance like oil. Therefore, some oils can cause earwax to soften when two substances get in touch. Proponents of this treatment suggest the use of the following oils:

  • glycerin
  • baby oil
  • mineral oil
  • coconut oil
  • olive oil


Disadvantages. Water is the ear canal can promote an infection. For this reason, saline solution is recommended as an alternative. Hydrogen peroxide may cause tissue scarring or hearing problems and should not be used if you have eardrum perforations. Commercial ceruminolytics come with their own set off side effects. Because the ear canal is a highly sensitive area, it is best to avoid any invasive procedures that may damage it physically or cause an imbalance.

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