Earwax, also known as cerumen, is a frequent topic of discussion in Audiology. Most often the discussions center around how to remove it. When earwax begins to cause problems, many people complain about decreased hearing or discomfort. In fact, cerumen impaction is one of the most common ear problems encountered by general practitioners.

What exactly is earwax and why do we produce it? Earwax consists of fats, fatty acids, and a mixture of various naturally occurring substances. It is secreted by specialized glands and its purpose is to clean, protect, and lubricate the ear canal. It is normal to have wax in your ear canals. The wax can be soft, hard, wet, or dry, and is usually light to golden brown in colour. Sometimes it can appear very dark or black which often occurs after prolonged exposure to air, becoming oxidized and dehydrated. Generally speaking, the darker the colour of earwax, the harder its consistency.

Wax is normally eliminated by a self-cleaning mechanism which causes it to migrate out of the canal. Sometimes this does not happen causing earwax to build up in the canal. This is more likely to happen if the canal is small, or if there is excessive hair in the canal. Sometimes a canal is curvy and the

wax may accumulate ‘around the bend’ and get stuck. Diet and hearing aid use can also increase wax production.

People often view earwax as a sign of poor hygiene and look for the best method of wax removal. Cotton swabs, such as Q-tips are a popular choice. There are even advertisements for gadgets and devices to remove wax. Bottom line: STOP! Some of the best advice for dealing with earwax: do not stick anything into your ear that is smaller than your elbow!

Many people exacerbate the problem when trying to take wax out of their ears. The wax is often pushed further in to the canal where it becomes impacted and very difficult to remove. This causes discomfort and can even damage the eardrum. If you suffer from frequent wax build-up and/or blockages, regular professional cleaning of the ears every 6-12 months is recommended.

If you are experiencing fullness, hearing loss, itching or tinnitus and you suspect earwax do not take matters into your own hands. Seek out an experienced Audiologist or Physician for assistance. Your ears will thank you!

Submitted by: Curt Culford, M.Cl.Sc. Aud, Reg. CASLPO Audiologist and Owner, Culford Family Hearing

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