Healthy Hearing and Earwax

Dr. Howard Tamashiro

Hearing and Earwax

Earwax? Yuck!

Of all the substances produced by our bodies, earwax is perhaps the most perplexing. While earwax might seem annoying and useless, smelly and sticky – it is actually essential for healthy hearing.

Earwax is also known as cerumen, and it is the result of natural cleaning processes within the ears, produced by glands located within the ear canals.

Earwax – It’s A Good Thing!

A normal amount of earwax is beneficial: it protects the skin of the ears, lubricates, provides a natural barrier against bacteria, and helps to clean the ears. It also acts as a deterrent against bugs. Believe it or not, the smell of it keeps them away, and can trap those who venture inside before they can get to the delicate tissues of the inner ear.

What the Color and Texture of Your Earwax Say About You

Although nearly everyone’s ears produce earwax, its composition can vary from person to person, depending on their ethnicity, environment, age, and diet.

There are two main types of earwax – dry and wet.
• Wet earwax usually appears in Caucasians and Africans
• Dry earwax is most common among Native Americans, Pacific Islanders, and Asians.

The color of your earwax is telling as well.
• White, flaky earwax indicates a lack of a body-odor producing chemical, so can often go along with little or no body odor. Dark colored sticky earwax can indicate the opposite.
• Dark brown earwax which is tinged with red may signal an injury that is bleeding.
• Light brown, orangish or yellowish earwax is healthy and normal. Children tend to have lighter colored, softer versions.
• Dark brown or black colored earwax is typically older, having picked up dirt and bacteria. Adults tend to have harder, darker earwax.

How Much is Too Much?

Although earwax, or cerumen, is beneficial as a rule, too much can cause a multitude of problems. Typically, the body produces the perfect and appropriate amount of wax. Maintaining a healthy diet, practicing good hygiene, normal chewing and talking, will help your ears naturally expel excess earwax, along with the dirt and debris it traps.

Some people are simply prone to producing too much cerumen. Stress and fear can also contribute to an excess in earwax production, the same response as the sweat glands, as they are produced by the same type of glands. People who have a lot of hair in their ears, those who suffer from chronic ear infections, those who have abnormally formed ear canals, and the elderly are especially prone to earwax production and buildup.

Causes of Earwax Buildup

Excess cerumen production, however, does not automatically produce blockage or other symptoms of earwax buildup. In fact, one of the most common causes of earwax buildup is at-home removal. Careful removal of earwax from hearing aids is one thing, but inappropriate and aggressive earwax removal from the ear canals can actually push the wax further into the ear canal, creating big problems.

Signs of Earwax Buildup

➢ Sudden or partial hearing loss, which is usually temporary
➢ Tinnitus, which is a ringing or buzzing in the ear
➢ Earache
➢ A feeling of fullness in the ear
➢ A child sticking his/her finger or other objects in their ear
➢ Itching in the ear

Signs of Ear Infection

Unremoved or impacted earwax buildup can lead to infection. Call your doctor if you experience the following symptoms of infection:

➢ Severe pain in your ear
➢ Ear pain that does not subside
➢ Drainage from the ear
➢ Fever
➢ Coughing
➢ Persistent hearing loss
➢ Odor from the ear
➢ Dizziness

Please note that some of the above symptoms can have many other causes besides impacted earwax. You should see a doctor if any of these symptoms are frequent, to determine if earwax is the cause, or something else.

Hearing Center of Hawaii

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