We have all experienced ear wax in one way or another. It is a natural part of life whether it is gooey, flaky, or crusty. But what is it, why does our body produce it, and how does it impact our hearing? Ear wax is medically referred to as cerumen (pronounced seh-ROO-men). This normal, naturally occurring substance is secreted in the ear canal—the connection between your outer and inner ear. Ear wax is made up of secretions from the sebaceous and sweat glands, as well as sloughed off skin cells from the ear. Ear wax usually picks up a few more microscopic friends, ranging from hair, to dirt and other tiny debris as it slowly migrates to the outer ear. The waxy mixture then naturally makes the outward journey, usually nudged along by jaw motions such as talking or chewing.
What does ear wax do?
Ear wax has some important jobs:
- Moisturizer: Due to its oily, waxy nature, ear wax is an effective moisturizer for the ear canal, keeping it clean and lubricated. Too little ear wax can leave your ears dry, itchy, and flaky, making you more prone to scratching them—which puts them at greater risk for irritation and infection.
- Protective Barrier: Ear wax is a natural protective barrier—helping trap dirt, dust, and other grime before it has a chance to reach (and potentially damage) your ear drum and inner ear.
- Bug Repellent: The smell of this waxy substance shoos away small, curious insects, who can sometimes fly or crawl their way into the ear (yuck). If any bugs do manage to break their way in, they’ll get captured in ear wax’s sticky trap, then tumble out later along with the rest of the gunk.
- Antibiotic: Ear wax is your ear’s local defense system. Researchers have identified several important antimicrobial peptides present in ear wax. These peptides work together to protect against a broad range of bacteria and fungi, preventing them from growing and infecting the ear. While each peptide has an antimicrobial effect on its own; when combined, they increase in power and effectiveness. The pH level of ear wax also provides ideal conditions for this collaborative power to take place.
Why does ear wax build up in the ear?
The body will produce as much ear wax as it needs, but sometimes it can produce too much, causing buildup and blockage. Several factors can influence ear wax production, including diet, stress, and hygiene. Studies have shown that consuming omega 3 fatty acids (found in foods such as fish, flaxseed, and walnuts) reduces the chance of ear wax buildup.
If you are prone to picking out wax with a cotton swab (or your finger), stop, drop, and take note. Regularly removing ear wax triggers the body to produce even more wax, which can result in excessive ear wax.
Too much ear wax in the ear canal can harden and dry up over time, increasing the risk of it becoming impacted. Impacted ear wax can cause a host of issues, including infections, earaches—even hearing loss.
How can ear wax impact hearing?
If too much ear wax builds up, it can block the ear canal and prevent sound waves from passing through to the inner ear from the outer ear.
The result is conductive hearing loss—the name for hearing loss caused by issues within the ear canal, ear drum or middle ear. Ear blockage from wax is one of the leading causes of conductive hearing loss. Conductive hearing loss can make softer sounds more difficult to hear and make louder sounds more muffled.
This type of hearing loss can often be temporary—for example, if impacted ear wax is the culprit, it can be removed in a safe and timely manner to reverse the hearing loss. However, if impacted ear wax is left untreated in the canal for too long, it can potentially lead to more permanent hearing loss. Researchers have found that mice exposed to conductive hearing loss over the course of a year experienced lasting damage to the inner ear.1
It is important to recognize and remove impacted ear wax before it has a chance to cause irreversible damage to your hearing health.
How do hearing aids impact ear wax?
Hearing aids that rest in the ear can block the natural journey ear wax must take to exit the ear. This ear blockage can stimulate the ear canal glands to produce more wax. Some hearing aid wearers report having more ear wax after getting hearing aids.
If you wear hearing aids, it is important to keep on top of ear wax, as it can block your ears (and hearing), as well as the receiver and other parts of your hearing aid device. The acidic nature of ear wax can damage the delicate electrical components. In fact, ear wax buildup is one of the most common reasons for hearing aid repairs. Learn how to clean ear wax from your hearing aids here. You can also visit your hearing care provider, who should be able to help clean any wax from your hearing aids or send them out for repairs, if needed.
How can I safely remove ear wax?
Ear wax doesn’t need to be removed most of the time—our bodies will naturally produce and expel it. However, if you’re experiencing symptoms of ear wax buildup or impacted ear wax (such as earache, itching, tinnitus or a sensation of fullness in/plugging of the ear), it’s worth getting evaluated by your doctor.
You should always have your ears checked and cleaned by a physician for the first time. There are many things that can go wrong if you try to remove your ear wax on your own at home. This can include infection, ear drum perforation, etc. You may think that the ear wax in your ears could be something else, but you should have your ears checked by a professional before you do. After your physician has cleaned your ears and ensured that they are healthy, they can recommend at home treatments.
A few important notes:
- Never insert anything into the ear canal, such as cotton swabs. This can push the ear wax further into the canal, causing blockage and/or damaging the ear drum
If you think you may have hearing loss, it’s a good idea to get it checked out by a hearing care professional. Whether it’s temporary as a result of impacted ear wax, or something else, your provider can assess your hearing and give you the care you need to get back to hearing all the sounds of life. Request an appointment with an Amplifon Hearing Health Care provider here.