09 May 2022

The ins and outs of ear wax


Ear wax is not a subject that we generally like to talk about - in fact, unless you are blighted by it, it very rarely comes up in conversation - and then only in hushed tones. Further, if you do find yourself suffering because of ear wax build up, it is very likely that you won't even want to tell anyone - it's not nice to admit or discuss, but can be even less pleasant to endure. It takes a while for someone to admit to the fact that ear wax is causing them a problem, and, when they do, they need to know that they are in safe hands.

This article is designed to provide information on the subject, as well as to encourage you to reach out for help.

What is the purpose of ear wax?

Did you know that the official name for ear wax is cerumen, and it is a phenomenon that occurs in humans and other animals? What is also good to know is that everyone has it, and the reason they do is because ear wax has some really beneficial medicinal purposes.

Ear wax is naturally produced by the glands in the outer third ear of the ear canal to help lubricate and protect your ears from water, small pieces of debris, and even insects. It also has antibacterial properties and helps to repel dirt.

Ear wax is not ‘dirty', nor can it be prevented, and is generally self-cleaning, but can, in some instances, build up and cause problems with your hearing health and comfort.

What causes ear wax?

As we now know, ear wax is natural, important, and inevitable. However, a person can suffer from a build-up of ear wax if their ear canals are narrow or have suffered damage, there is lots of hair present in the canal, the canal is inflamed, or the person has a condition affecting their scalp or the area around the ear. There are also studies that suggest you may increase the build-up of ear wax if you are a regular user of earphones - especially ear pods - and a condition called ‘otitis externa', or “swimmer's ear”, which is the inflammation of our ear canal can also be a factor.

How do we know we have ear wax?

There are several indicators that you might have a build-up of ear wax, such as a reduction in your ability to hear, a muffled quality of hearing or even some buzzing, you may get earache or even feel dizzy and sick as it could affect your balance - similar to vertigo. Idicators are also pain, itching, discharge and odour. However, it's also worth noting the possibility that these may show the presence of other medical conditions involving your ears that may need attention too. As our hearing is such a precious sense, you would be well advised to seek professional help once you experience difficulty - after all, you would if your sight started to fail.

What can we do to remove ear wax?

Your ear canal and eardrum are delicate and can easily be damaged by excess earwax, but, similarly, we must make it absolutely clear that you must not put foreign objects into you ear to try and clear the wax. It is possible that this will result in it being pushed further in, or injury being caused or infection occurring. There are some traditional ‘remedies' that may have been passed on in families through generations, however at no point will we as audiologists, or any other credible medical service, ever recommend that you insert anything into your ear canal to remove blockages.

A common default for sufferers is to poke around in the ear with a finger or cotton bud* in the hope of solving the problem, but there is a very real danger that this will make the matter worse by pushing the wax more deeply in which could expose the sufferer to even worse impairment and damage.

*The same applies to unfolded paper clips, plastic pen lids and lengthy false nails!

However, the option of 2/3 drops of warm olive oil several times a day (although it should really be medical grade oil) inserted for a few days may help. It is difficult to define what exactly is ‘medical grade oil', hence the re-enforcement of advice not to insert or administer anything yourself.

What effective treatments are involved in ear wax removal?

The first step in effective treatment is to arrange an appointment with a qualified medical professional, such as audiologist Steven Hale, who provides safe & comfortable ear wax removal in Sutton Coldfield.

Steve conducts a thorough examination to reveal the extent of ear wax build up and help determine the best method of removal. The two most common methods of removal are:

  1. Previously known as ‘syringing', irrigation is a more recent procedure that has replaced this old-fashioned technique. It involves flushing the wax out of the ear canal with a soft pulse of water. The entire procedure takes less than 45 minutes.
  2. This method of wax removal requires the insertion of a soft tube into the ear and a gentle suction is then used to remove wax and debris from the ear canal. This is done without the addition of any liquid which means that it is even safer for anyone who is susceptible to ear infections or may have previously suffered from a perforated ear drum.

What happens if we don't remove ear wax?

If you don't remove your ear wax, it's possible that a build-up can lead to infection. Medically, you may suffer from increased pain, dizziness, discomfort and even hearing loss to a variety of degrees.

Aside from these clinical issues, however, impaired hearing may cause a loss of confidence and reduced ability to communicate or reluctance to participate in social and familial events. This in turn could result is some very damaging withdrawal and isolation, which, certainly in those of a greater age, can have devastating impact upon quality of life.

Steven Hale Hearing are award-winning Audiologists committed to improving your hearing health. Find out more here.