Billions and billions of cotton swabs or “Q-Tips” are sold each year and have many uses. One of the first purposes many people think about is removing that pesky earwax found in the canal of our ears.
You know what I am talking about right? That itchy feeling you get in your ears due to allergies or dry skin, making you want to scratch the inside of them. Then again, maybe you use them to just mop up the water that gets into your ears after bathing. However, when we use them near our ears, we find that yellow substance on the cotton tip we know to be earwax.
Earwax, also known as cerumen, is a waxy substance in various shades of yellow or brown that is secreted in the ear canal. There is some debate on the purpose of earwax, but the general consensus is it coats the ear canal to protect it from bacteria, fungi, insects and water. It also aids in the canal’s ability to clean itself by capturing dirt, debris and dead skin. This self-cleaning system occurs through jaw movement when you yawn or chew as the movement forces earwax out of the canal along with what it has captured.
Earwax is produced in the outer third of the ear canal and is a mixture of secretions from the sebaceous (oil) glands and apocrine (sweat) glands. It is made up of shed layers of skin, keratin, saturated and unsaturated long-chain fatty acids, alcohols, squalene and, believe it or not, cholesterol.
There are two types of earwax that are generally determined by genetics: wet, which is more common, and the dry type.
There is a lot of complexity with cerumen you may not have known. However, the most important information to be aware of is that the most common way of removing it, using a cotton swab, is incorrect. Inserting a cotton swab INTO the ear canal is not only counterproductive but also dangerous. Ear swabs are meant to be used on the OUTSIDE of the ear only because pushing it into the ear canal can actually move wax further down the ear canal. Additionally, the risk of puncturing the extremely thin ear drum (tympanic membrane) is also increased, which can cause permanent hearing loss.
This is why the old saying “never put anything smaller than your elbow in your ear” is very good advice. However, sometimes wax can pile up in the ear, causing not only irritation but also hearing loss. In those cases, seeking professional help is recommended, as untreated impacted earwax can lead to hearing loss and even infection.
For hearing aid wearers, earwax can be even more problematic. The hearing aid industry argues as much as 60 percent of all hearing aid malfunctions are related to earwax. Wearers of hearing aids should be all the more aware of making sure their ears are staying clear of excessive earwax.
Therefore, whether you wear hearing aids or not, you should see your hearing professional once each year so he or she can stay on top of earwax issues before they become problems.