Earwax, also known as cerumen, is a natural substance produced by glands in the ear canal to protect the eardrum from damage and infections. Earwax accumulates naturally, and then dries up and falls out of the ear canal. It functions to rid the ear of dust or sand particles, and repel water, which may contain bacteria and can cause infections. Without earwax, ears would be dry, itchy and unprotected. Earwax is made up of various different materials, and may be soft and almost liquid, or firm and solid. It is composed of dead skin cells, bacteria, sweat, oil and water. The production and clearing of earwax is natural and self-regulating so, under ordinary circumstances, the vast majority of people need never clean their ears.

Causes of Earwax Impaction

Blockage (impaction) occurs when earwax gets pushed deep within the ear canal. Although for most people this is an uncommon occurrence, it is one of the most frequent ear problems treated by physicians, and is a recurring problem for about 6 percent of the population. Everyone makes earwax, but the amount and type are genetically determined. Reasons for an excessive accumulation of earwax include:

  • Small or oddly shaped ear canals, which make drainage more difficult
  • Ear canals narrowed by infection
  • Genetic predisposition to the production of more, or more solid, wax

Frequent use of hearing aids or earplugs may block drainage and cause an accumulation of ear wax.

Symptoms of Earwax Impaction

There are many symptoms of earwax impaction. They may include:

  • Decreased hearing
  • Dizziness
  • Drainage from the ear canal
  • Ear pain
  • Itching in the ear canal
  • Ringing in the ears
  • Sensation that the ear is full or plugged

When any of these symptoms is present, a physician should be consulted.

Methods of Earwax Removal

Many people attempt to clean out earwax with Q-tips, bobby pins or other small objects, but doing so is one of the most frequent causes of earwax impaction. This is because the objects used may remove small amounts of wax, but push the rest further into the ear canal or, in some cases, puncture the eardrum. For people troubled by earwax, a few drops of mineral oil weekly, an over-the-counter preparation for ear wax removal, or prescribed ear drops, may be helpful. If there is an extreme buildup of wax in the ear canal, a doctor should be consulted. Only a doctor performing a professional cleaning (lavage) can safely assist with earwax removal.

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