Earwax (cerumen) may seem gross, but it is one of the body’s fascinating defense mechanisms. Earwax plays a critical role not just in protecting the health of our ears but as a barrier against airborne blood infections, and overzealous cleaning can actually lead to big problems.
Earwax and Vascularization
At Colorado Hearing, patients get to see on a large screen the exact condition of their ears. This part of a full audiologic evaluation is called an otoscopy. Participating in your otoscopy will enable you to see just how much wax your ear is producing and if that wax is building up and becoming a problem.
An otoscopy will also reveal that the skin surrounding your ear canal is very thin and very vascularized. In other words, just under that thin skin is a tight web of capillaries, ultra-tiny connections between the arteries and the veins.
Dense vascularization under thin skin would be a weak link against bacteria and viruses were it not for earwax. It turns out that earwax not only helps the skin keep microorganisms separated from the blood, but earwax is usually acidic enough to actually kill some harmful bacteria.
The canal’s skin is not only very thin, it is also constantly regenerating with new skin. It is the fastest growing skin on the body. The densest skin “birthing” areas are on and near the eardrum. The new skin is constantly pushing the old skin toward the canal entrance where it eventually exits through the opening in the ear (which always seems to happen when wearing black).
Fresh earwax is light brown and sticky, drying and darkening as it ages, and it is typically produced in the middle part of the ear canal, right in the path of the old skin. Ideally, this fast-migrating skin carries the old wax with it to the ear opening, where it is easily cleaned off.
“Best Practices” to Avoid
Is it obvious now why using cotton-tipped applicators is discouraged? Probing the ear canal with a cotton swab subverts the system. Sometimes we see ear canals that have been so habitually reamed that they are inflamed or wax that has been pushed in and piled up to the point where the ear’s natural cleaning action could never catch up.
Another example of creating a problem where none exists is ear candling. While it may give a placebo feeling of relief to have a burning funnel of wax-infused paper stuck in your ear, don’t do it! The debris seen in the funnel is not earwax! It is just wax residue from the burnt part of the “candle.”
Otoscopies done before and after candling reveal that no wax is removed through this dangerous method. Please do not become one of the thousands of emergency room patients who have had a piece of hot debris burn their ear canal or scorch their eardrum from ear candling.
These patients have made a problem where none existed, but we also see many patients who have wax problems through no fault of their own. Some patients suffer an absence of earwax. This can often cause dryness and itching—symptoms our skilled hearing specialist can help you manage.
Some patients produce too much earwax or have an anomaly that prevents earwax from being able to naturally exit the canal. Both of these factors can contribute to wax impaction. Impacted ears usually need professional cleaning. Symptoms of minor impaction can include dizziness, ear pain, ringing, drainage, itchiness and, of course, decreased hearing ability. Uncleared impactions can even lead to tumors.
If you struggle with excessive wax buildup or are concerned about the risk of impacted earwax, there are precautions you can take. Using over-the-counter ear softeners may prevent the build-up of earwax in your canals, and our team and Brian Bennett have the training, experience and specialized sterile instruments, vacuums and irrigators needed to safely remove impactions.
If you or someone you care about would like more information, we welcome you to contact us at 970-318-2010 today! A member of our team will be happy to help you learn more about ear cleaning in Montrose, Colorado.