Ear wax, also known as cerumen, is a thick waxy substance made by glands within your ear. Ear wax can range in color from yellow to red and brown. Ear wax helps to lubricate the ear canal, and to prevent infections by trapping dust, bacteria, insects, debris and water and stopping them from reaching the middle and inner ear. Everyone’s ears produce ear wax, but it is genetically determined how much we produce and the specific characteristics of our individual ear wax, such as consistency and color. Ear wax can vary greatly in appearance and amount from person to person.
While ear wax is generally helpful to the ear and its function, it can cause a variety of problems if overproduced by your body. While an excess of ear wax shouldn’t cause you any discomfort, it can lead to some minor complications. These issues include ear wax impaction, dizziness and vertigo and blockages of hearing aids.
Ear Wax Impaction: Some people are prone to producing too much ear wax, when this is the case it isn’t uncommon for people to clean their ears regularly using cotton buds and other methods. This is the most common cause of ear wax impaction. Impaction occurs when objects are pushed into the ear canal and force the wax further into the ear. When ear wax pushes up against the eardrum it can cause dizziness, nausea and vertigo. Other contributing factors to ear wax impaction include:
Blocked Ear Drum: Excessive ear wax and ear wax impaction can result in a blocked ear drum. This can lead to Tinnitus (a ringing or buzzing in your ear), a feeling of fullness and pressure within your ear or an earache. In severe cases, a buildup of ear wax can result in a perforation of the eardrum.
Blocked Hearing Aid: While ear wax can block your eardrum, resulting in a loss of hearing, it can do the same to your hearing device, resulting in diminished functionality.
A doctor can determine if you have any of these issues by examining your ear with an otoscope, an instrument which allows them to examine the inside of your ear.
Ear wax can build up excessively for many reasons, the two most common being that your body naturally makes more ear wax and the problem has been exacerbated by placing objects into your ear in an attempt to clean them.
In the case of a more severe issue caused by the buildup of ear wax, such as compaction or a perforated eardrum, medical intervention such as antibiotics may be required. If you experience pain and discomfort in your ears due to excessive wax, it is advisable you visit a doctor as soon as possible. The best treatment for excessive ear wax is to correctly clean your ears. This can be done either at home by yourself or by a health professional.
Treatment at home: Drops can be bought over the counter at the pharmacy which soften the wax in your ears. These are to be placed in the affected ear where they are left to sit, with the head on the side for about five minutes. The drops will drain out by themselves when you straighten your head. A bulb type syringe can also be purchased and used to flush the ear with blood temperature water. Procedures such as ear-candling are not recommended. If your previous attempts at removing wax buildup hasn’t been successful you should visit a doctor for assistance.
Treatment at the doctor: A healthcare professional such as your GP, or an ear nose and throat specialist, will be able to professionally irrigate your ears to remove wax build up. Prior to the procedure, the doctor will inspect your ears to ensure you have excess wax that needs to be removed. The doctor will then use a syringe to insert water or a water/saline mixture into your ear to flush out the wax. This may be slightly uncomfortable as you feel some pressure from the syringe forcing water into your ear.
Once you experience an earwax blockage, your chances of it returning are heightened. If your body produces a large amount of wax, you may need to deal with this condition on a regular basis. Ear wax blockage is only a temporary issue, and your symptoms will disappear once you have treated the condition.
Find out more about some other causes of hearing loss here