That sticky, yellowish goo that sometimes comes out of your ears can be gross, but it’s a vital part of your body’s natural defences.
Without it, you’d be in trouble. So what is the purpose of earwax, and why do ears get clogged?
Read on to learn everything you need to know about earwax and how to tell when to see a professional about it.
What Is Earwax Made From?
Earwax, or cerumen, is still a widely misunderstood substance. Our bodies excrete some icky stuff, but even though it may fit the bill, earwax benefits your ears’ overall health.
But what is earwax made out of? And how is earwax formed?
Earwax can be dark brown, yellow, even white and flaky. Primarily, it consists of sweat, oil, dead skin cells, and dirt. These ingredients come together and form a layer of waxy residue around the ear canal.
Studies reveal that not all earwax is created equal – depending on your ancestry and ethnicity, you may produce wet or dry types of this substance. Caucasians and Africans tend to have a type known as ‘wet’ earwax, which is more likely to block ears and become impacted. On the other hand, Asians and Native Americans predominantly create a drier flakier version that escapes the ear canal with ease.
The consistency of earwax can also depend on age. Your earwax would’ve been soft and light-coloured when you were a child. It can become harder, darker, and more brittle as we age.
Some people produce more than others, and many factors can increase production. A lot of hair in the ear canal, wearing hearing aids, excess stress, ear infections, and skin conditions can affect cerumen production.
What Is The Purpose of Earwax?
You have no doubt heard of the adverse effects of excess earwax. However, an average amount benefits your ear health unless you have a blocked ear or impacted earwax.
Earwax forms a protective layer around your ear canal. Being sticky, it acts as a barrier and traps foreign objects, like dust and grit, from reaching deeper into your ear. Earwax adds a level of protection to your eardrum.
Your eardrum also benefits from protection from bacteria. Cerumen prevents microscopic attackers from reaching the inner ear.
The smell of earwax usually repels insects. However, small bugs undeterred by the scent can still enter the canal. Earwax should trap bugs before they get too deep and do any damage to your eardrum, for example.
It also helps keep your ear canal’s skin clean and in good shape. The layer of wax keeps the skin moisturised and helps protect it from drying out and becoming itchy and flaky.
Earwax naturally migrates out of your ear canal and takes debris with it. Think of it like a natural conveyer belt carrying a continual load of earwax, dead skin cells and other dust or debris.
You can have too much earwax, especially if it has anything blocking its migration out of your ears, such as hair or hearing aids. Excess earwax-blocking ear canals can cause problems with hearing, ear pain, and ear infections.
5 Reasons Why Ears Get Blocked
Many factors, both internal and external, contribute to ear blockages.
If your home or work environment is dirty or has lots of debris in the air, like dust, it can cause your ears to produce more than average amounts of cerumen.
The weather is another factor that can cause excess earwax production. Cold weather can make you produce extra earwax as a defensive barrier against the low temperature.
Sustained periods in cold temperatures can also cause earwax to harden. Hardened earwax can be painful and form blockages in the ear canal.
2. Surfer’s Ear
Another way your body can react to cold weather, particularly sustained exposure to cold wind and water, is exostosis (or surfer’s ear). Exostosis is a defensive reaction by the body to create a barrier against cold air and moisture.
Exostosis is a benign growth of new bone, in this case on the temporal bone in the skull, that can squeeze the ear canal closed and trap unwanted debris and water. Exostosis can cause pain, lead to infections, and make it easier for blockages to occur.
3. The Shape of Your Ear Canal
The shape of your ear canal can also make it susceptible to blockages. Narrow or misshapen ear canals often contribute to blocked ears. Ear infections, excess hair growth, or naturally restricted ear canals may contribute. Narrow ear canals also allow less cerumen to form a blockage.
4. Excess Hair
Excess hair in your ear canal can make it difficult for earwax to escape or migrate out of your ears.
5. Hearing Aids and Earplugs
Hearing aids and earplugs partially or entirely block a wearer’s ear canal, making it harder for earwax to migrate out of your ears.
Wearing earplugs frequently or more than a few times per week can restrict the natural progression of earwax out of your ear canal.
If you have hearing aids, they should be worn every day for the most benefit. For many people, this creates earwax buildup, but there are things you can do to minimise its impact.
Changing the hearing aid wax filters every month, replacing domes every two to three months, and replacing hearing aid tubing every four to six months help alleviate earwax blockage and damage to sensitive hearing aid components.
Check out our guide on hearing aid cleaning and care for more information.
The Risks of Earwax Buildup
Excess earwax production can lead to other, more severe problems if left untreated.
Impacted earwax is one such problem, which additional factors, such as frequent foreign objects in the ear canal, can worsen. Cotton swabs, earbuds, and hearing aids can all cause impacted earwax.
It can also be caused by skin conditions, infections, or any previously mentioned causes of blockages.
Overproduction of earwax can form a dam in your ear canal that lets water in but stops it from running out.
Trapped water can make the skin of your ear canal soft and absorbent. The lack of protection from moisture makes your ear canal skin vulnerable to bacteria, which can cause infection or irritation.
Many conditions associated with wax buildup and causing pain and discomfort can also adversely affect your hearing.
When Should You Get Earwax Removed?
Everyone’s earwax production is different. Some people produce lots of wax and have some overproduction issues, whereas some produce no excess.
Determining whether to get your earwax removed regularly or only when you feel it’s required is challenging. Circumstances and environments also dictate earwax production and how easily it migrates out of your ear. Discussing with a qualified health practitioner is always a good idea, as they will help you establish how often earwax removal may be necessary.
Methods of Earwax Removal
There are two main methods of earwax removal—Microsuction and syringing.
Microsuction is inserting a thin tube into the ear canal using a microscope and employing light suction to remove earwax and debris.
Syringing uses water pressure to wash out the ear canal. This method is considered to be less effective than microsuction. There are more risks to the patient, including eardrum rupture, and the experience is generally messy and uncomfortable.
There are also some even less effective methods, such as ear candling.
Although earwax can sometimes cause problems with your ears, it exists to help maintain healthy ears and protects them from damage and infection.
Prioritising your ear health with regular checkups with a medical professional is a surefire way to preserve your ear health and avoid any problems that could lead to lasting effects.
If you’ve been experiencing hearing loss and having the earwax removed did not improve things, a hearing check with our audiologist is recommended.
Hopefully, this article has cleared up some questions you may have had, like earwax’s purpose and how important it is to the health of your ears.
Book an appointment today if you have experienced any of these issues or want to get your ears checked.