Earwax, also known as cerumen, is the brownish-yellow substance that accumulates in the outer ear canal. Produced by small glands in the ear, cerumen has protective, lubricating and antimicrobial properties. When present in moderation, cerumen is considered healthy for the ear. The ear is considered “self-cleaning”, meaning the ear canal slowly pushes cerumen out of the ear on its own. Old cerumen is constantly being moved, assisted by chewing and jaw motion. Once it reaches the exterior ear, the wax dries up and flakes out.
Cerumen is only formed in the outer third of the ear canal, not the deeper portion close to the eardrum (tympanic membrane). Therefore it is imperative for patients to avoid sticking fingers or objects (especially Q-tips!) into the ear canal. By doing so, patients may accidentally push cerumen towards the back of the ear, further impacting it. This condition is called cerumen impaction, and sometimes causes hearing loss, blocked ears, ear pain, itching, ringing, or sensation of fullness.
If you or a family member is experiencing any of these symptoms it is important to be seen by an Ear, Nose, and Throat physician (otolaryngologist) for a routine examine. Cerumen impaction can diagnosed by visualizing the ear canal with a tiny microscopy (otoscope). A variety of quick and painless methods in-office can be used to remove cerumen; including use of suction (a tiny vacuum cleaner), forceps, or curette. On many occasions special ear drops are used to soften the wax, making it easier to remove.
There are no proven ways to prevent cerumen buildup in the ears, but not inserting Q-tips or other objects is strongly recommended to avoid impaction. Over the counter ear drops such as Debrox, or hydrogen peroxide can be helpful to prevent excessive cerumen from developing in the ear canal. Patients who are prone to recurrent cerumen impaction should see an Ear, Nose, and Throat physician (otolaryngologist) every 6-12 months for routine cleaning and examination.
If you or family members have concerns regarding cerumen impaction, please do not hesitate to contact Colden & Seymour Ear, Nose, Throat, and Allergy to schedule an examination. Opinions expressed here are those of Daryl Colden, MD, FACS and Christopher Jayne, BA. They are not substituted for the advice of your personal physician.