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Earwax: How It Affects Your Hearing

Earwax: How It Affects Your Hearing

The human ear is a highly complex organ. Not only does it contain the three smallest bones in the body, it is responsible for our hearing and balance. Earwax impaction is the most common cause for hearing loss.

Anatomy

Outer Ear

  • Consists of cartilage covered by skin and is shaped to capture sound waves and funnel them through the ear canal to the eardrum

  • Ear canal

Middle Ear

  • Eardrum: thin membrane that separates the outer ear from the middle ear

  • Small air-filled chamber containing a chain of three tiny bones that connect the eardrum to the inner ear. Vibrations of the eardrum are amplified by the bones and transmitted to the inner ear

  • The eustachian tube is a small tube that connects the middle ear to the airway in the back of the nose

Inner Ear

  • Cochlea: organ of hearing

  • Vestibular system: organ of balance

Earwax Production: Everyone does it

  • Starts as a mixture of fatty secretions from the sebaceous and sweat glands in the walls of the outer ear canal

  • Jaw movement from chewing or talking helps propel those secretions through the canal to the ear opening, where they dry up and flake off

  • Dead skin and other debris combine with secretions to create earwax

  • Earwax that picks up a lot of debris or sits in the ear canal for a long time can get hard and dry, obstructing the ear canal

Some earwax is good for your ears.

  • It protects the skin lining the ear canal. It’s a natural water-proofing agent and lubricates the ear canal

  • It's a natural cleanser as it moves from inside the ear canal outward, gathering dead skin cells, hair, and dirt along the way

  • It has anti-bacterial and anti-fungal properties

  • If your ears don't have enough earwax, they're likely to feel itchy and uncomfortable

Symptoms of earwax impaction

  • Decreased or muffled hearing

  • Feeling that something is in the ear

  • Feeling of fullness in the ear

  • Earache

  • Ringing in the ear

  • Itchy ears

  • Ear discharge and/or odor

  • Dizziness

Causes of earwax impaction

  • Cotton Swabs: push the wax back in and pack it down

  • Fingers: can push back wax

  • Ear Plugs/buds

  • Hearing aids: can push back wax. Wax can also damage hearing aids

New earwax is soft and a golden-yellow color. Older earwax becomes dryer and turns to a brown or black color. There are some people who produce much more earwax than others, requiring periodic cleaning.

Treatment

At home: Because of the many options to flush ears and risk to certain patients, consult your healthcare provider to see which option is best for you. Never attempt to dig out excessive or hardened earwax, such as with a paper clip, cotton swab, pen cap, toothpick, or hairpin. You may push the wax farther into your ear and cause serious damage to the lining of your ear canal or eardrum.

Ear candling, a technique that involves placing a lighted, hollow, cone-shaped candle into the ear to try to remove earwax, is not recommended. Research has found that it doesn't work, and it may result in injury, such as burns, ear canal obstructions, and ruptured ear drum.

Healthcare provider: Removal techniques include

  • Curette: small, curved instrument to manually remove earwax

  • Suction

  • Flushing with warm water

An earwax softener may be used prior to removal.

The best way to clear your ears of wax is to use a washcloth or a tissue on the outer ear a couple of times a week. Wipe along the outer edges of your ears with a towel after you shower or bathe.

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