Wax is formed in everyone’s ear. But the question is ‘do we normally need to clean wax from our ears?’ If yes, how and when? These are common questions that you might have regarding earwax. In this article, we will look at:

a) What is earwax and how is it formed.

b) How does wax protect your ears? 

c) How to remove earwax?

What is Earwax? 

Earwax is a yellowish, waxy material that is produced by the sebaceous glands located inside your ear canal. It is also known as cerumen. The ear canal or the external auditory meatus, (EAM) is a pathway running from your outer ear to the middle ear. 

Earwax protects your ear from dust, foreign particles, and microorganisms. It also cleans and lubricates the lining of your ear canal and protects the skin of the ear canal, from irritation due to water. Without earwax, your ear canal would be dry, waterlogged (full of water), and susceptible to infection. Most often, earwax falls out by itself or can be removed by washing. 

How is Wax Formed in The Ears? 

The ear canal skin has secretory glands (pilosebaceous unit) in the outer part. These glands secrete a substance called sebum. This sebum gets mixed with the shredded layer of the skin of the canal (desquamated epithelium) and forms cerumen (i.e wax).

How Does Wax Protect Your Ears? 

1. Traps foreign substances from entering your ear. Earwax traps dirt, foreign particles, or insects in the ear canal before it reaches the eardrum (a thin, cone-shaped membrane that separates your ear canal from the middle ear).

2. Earwax protects the lining of your ear canal. It keeps the skin of the ear canal healthy by forming a waxy coat on it. This waxy layer over the canal skin prevents it from drying and breaking down. In the absence of this waxy coat, the skin becomes dry, giving rise to itching and scaling which causes the further breakdown of the skin, culminating in bacterial infections. 

3. The wax also helps to maintain the acidic pH of the ear canal. The pH level is a measure of the acidity of an aqueous solution. Healthy ear canal skin has an acidic pH and is normally in the range of 5.0 to 7.8. An acidic pH level prevents the growth of harmful bacteria and fungus. 

If this thin layer of wax is absent, the pH of the canal is altered, making it more alkaline and favourable for the growth of bacteria. 

Earwax Buildup and its Problems

When your glands make more earwax than necessary, it is known as earwax buildup. This excess wax that is formed will get collected in the ear canal and tend to block the ear. It will give rise to fullness in the ear and a decrease in hearing.

Unremoved earwax buildup can lead to infection and result in symptoms such as:

  • Severe pain in your ear

  • Fullness and/or ringing in your ear

  • Impaired hearing in the affected ear

  • Smell (odour) from the affected ear

  • Fever

  • Coughing

  • Dizziness

How to Remove Earwax?

The safest and recommended way to remove wax from your ears is to visit your doctor/ENT specialist.

Wax buildup can trap the moisture and cause skin maceration (making the skin wrinkly, soft, and soggy) and oedema (fluid retention in the ear). 

This provides a good breeding ground for the growth of bacteria and fungus. In such situations, over-the-counter (OTC) ear drops to dissolve wax are helpful. 

Ear irrigation is another way to remove earwax buildup. Irrigation of an eardrum is a process that your ENT specialist will carry out at the clinic. Consult your doctor to know more about this.

Using earbuds to remove the excess wax tends to push the wax more inside, against the eardrum. The cotton of the earbuds soaks the moisture of the wax, making it more hard and difficult to remove. This may give rise to pain and a blocked sensation in the ear. It is advisable to check with your doctor before attempting to remove earwax from an earbud.

Tips to Avoid 

  • It is not required to clean your ears every day. The wax in your ears automatically comes out of the ear, if there is an excess buildup. 

  • If there is itching in your ear, you will be tempted to use earbuds or any object which fits into the canal to scratch the ear from inside, just to get rid of the itching. This can further cause trauma to the delicate ear canal skin, resulting in swelling and redness, and bleeding (in some cases) in the canal, which will further aggravate the itching, and hence a vicious cycle develops. This whole process eventually will lead to an infection of the outer ear.

  • Do not attempt to clean your earwax by yourself if you have diabetes, a weak immune system, or a hole in your eardrum, as it will lead to the development of infections that will be difficult to treat.

  • Do not attempt to remove your earwax by using cotton swabs. They look small and safe, but they also can cause damage. If the cotton swabs get pushed too hard, they might get lodged deeper inside the ear canal and cause damage. 

Earwax builds up even though you clean your ears regularly because the earwax is a natural substance that is produced inside our ears. If earwax builds up frequently and is a cause for discomfort, then it is advisable to consult your doctor/ENT specialist for knowing the cause and its treatment.

Disclaimer: This article is written by the Practitioner for informational and educational purposes only. The content presented on this page should not be considered as a substitute for medical expertise. Please "DO NOT SELF-MEDICATE" and seek professional help regarding any health conditions or concerns. Practo will not be responsible for any act or omission arising from the interpretation of the content present on this page.