Ear Wax

26th Jan

Let's Talk About Ear Wax

Ear wax can be a real problem when it builds up, it can dull your hearing, cause tinnitus, it can even cause pain if the plug gets impacted on your ear drum. But what is it, why do we have it and what causes it to build up some times? All those questions and more answered here, let's talk about ear wax. 

What is earwax

We all produce ear wax, the medical term is cerumen, some people produce more than others. Even people who don't produce a lot of ear wax can sometimes over produce ear wax for no apparent reason. It is a natural process and we believe that it has a protective effect in the ear canal. The problem with over production of wax is when the natural process of self cleaning in the ear is interrupted and the wax begins to build up. Eventually that wax build up is enough to plug the ear canal and that is when the problems begin to start.

Ear wax is a natural substance which is produced in the ear canal. It is generally yellow, amber or brown in appearance. in essence it is a mixture of oils, sweat, dead skin and any dust or detrius that enters your ear canal. It is secreted by special skin glands that are found in the outer third of the ear canal. The type of wax you have is usually genetically inherited  but other factors such as diet, age, race and environment can all also influence it. Like I said, we aren't sure what the exact function of wax is, however, we do believe it plays a role in the hygiene and overall health of the ear.

The natural cleaning process

We have a natural cleaning process in our ear canal. The skin of the ear canal grows out from the centre of the ear drum towards the pinna (the outer ear). As it does, it normally carries earwax out of the canal with it and it generally can be cleaned off the mouth of the canal or it simply drops out. The process is commonly called the migratory process. This process is really obvious in young children, when kids are young they are growing fast, which includes the skin in the ear canal. That is why children seem to perpetually have mucky ears. It is just the normal process speeded up a bit.

What interrupts it?

The problem of ear wax build up occurs when the natural process is interrupted for some reason. The typical reason is because you shoved cotton buds in your ear, therefore pushing the earwax back towards the eardrum and interrupting the process. Another cause of the interruption can be changes in our ear canal, sometimes as we get older the cartilage that forms the outer ear and outer third of the canal loses it's consistency. This cause the outer third of the canal to narrow. It seems that this too can cause the build up of wax.

People with very narrowed ear canals can have real problems, sometimes the change in the consistency of ear wax as we get older can also cause ear wax build up. Wearing things like ear bud headphones for long periods can do it as can wearing hearing aids. Sometimes it is just anatomy, your ear canals have two bends in them, sometimes they are very sharp and this seems to cause a problem with the migratory process. 

What are the symptoms?

Generally most people are aware that they have a wax build up problem, the general symptoms are:

  • Hearing loss: Sometimes ear wax can cause hearing loss, this can be most obvious after swimming, bathing or showering because the wax soaks up the water and expands, completely blocking the ear canal. 
  • Full ear: It can also cause a feeling of full ear and give you the sense that internal body sounds such as chewing, breathing, and your own can be heard much louder inside your head.
  • Tinnitus: Ear wax can also cause tinnitus, which is a ringing/whistling/buzzing type of sound. If you suddenly have problems with tinnitus and especially if it is only in one ear, you should get it checked out immediately.
  • Vertigo: Sometimes ear wax can cause dizziness, we believe it to be because of the change in pressure in your ear canal caused by the blockage.
  • Sudden whistling of hearing aids: If your hearing aids suddenly start whistling where there has never been a problem before, it is usually caused by an ear wax build up. It changes the sound path within the canal and more sound gets bounced out causing the feedback.
  • Itchiness/irritation/pain: The ear wax plug can rub against or dig into the side of the ear canal when you move your jaw, depending on how hard it is it can cause different sensations.

If you feel any of these symptoms it is worth getting your ear canal checked out to see if wax is the problem. If you have a sudden hearing loss or if you suddenly develop tinnitus, you need to have it checked out straight away. It will probably be earwax, but these symptoms are serious and need investigating immediately. 

If you need ear wax removal in North London, why don't you give us a call on 020 8357 1360 and we will book you in for an appointment. 

About The Author

Alan Aaronson BSc (Hons), MSc, RHAD, Audiological Scientist, has been involved in hearing healthcare since 1998. He has vast experience with all of the facets of hearing care such as ear care procedures and hearing aids.

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