Earwax is that sticky yellow-orange substance which you might recoil from when you see it. Its proper name is cerumen. What functions does earwax play and how can you prevent earwax-induced hearing loss?
Earwax is made in the outer part of the ear canal. It’s a combination of skin cells and oil secreted from glands in the ear canal. Earwax has an important job to do – it cleans, protects and keeps the ear canal moist. Earwax catches the dirt and dust which enters your ears, stopping it in its tracks before it can travel further into the ear. Most of the time, earwax slowly moves towards the outside of the ear, along with your jaw movement, and either hardens and falls out or you remove it when you wash.
You may have heard the advice ‘don’t put anything smaller than your elbow in your ear’. It’s correct! Poking objects into your ear can both push earwax deep into your ear canal and damage your eardrum or other delicate parts of your ear. Even cotton tips, which are commonly used for ear cleaning, are not recommended. At most, earwax can be wiped gently from the outer part of the ear with a washcloth. In fact, washing your hair regularly is often enough to keep your ears clean.
So, what happens when things don’t go to plan?
Earwax is one of the leading causes of hearing loss. It can cause what’s known as conductive hearing loss. This is when the middle or outer ear is obstructed by a blockage or foreign body, leading to sound not able to effectively transmit to the inner ear. In the case of a blockage caused by earwax, it is usually because the earwax has been pushed too far into the ear canal or the ear itself is producing too much earwax and it is travelling back towards the eardrum.
Signs of an earwax blockage might include sudden hearing loss, tinnitus, a feeling of fullness in the ear, and even ear pain. If left too long without treatment, the blockage can create an infection. The good news is that in most cases of earwax blockage, the hearing loss is temporary. Once treated by a professional, your hearing should return to normal. On that note, we never recommend trying to remove a blockage yourself, for example, by using ear candles. These can be dangerous and aren’t medically proven to be effective.
Earwax can also interfere with hearing aids, by plugging up the receiver, microphone or speaker. This can prevent sound from getting out or in. A good daily cleaning regime can help keep wax buildup at bay.
If you’re struggling with out-of-control earwax, or you think you might have a wax buildup, seek help from an expert. Your GP or local hearing health professional can assess the cause of the problem, and recommend a product to help. They can also remove the buildup if necessary.