Cerumen (earwax)

What is cerumen?

Cerumen, commonly known as earwax, is a waxy, yellowish substance produced by the ceruminous glands located in the external auditory canal. It is usually expelled from the ear canal naturally. It is responsible for trapping dirt and debris and moving it out of the ear canal. In addition to protecting the skin of the ear canal from infection, it lubricates the eardrum, keeping it soft and pliable. Without proper lubrication, the eardrum is not as effective at transmitting sound. The presence of cerumen in the ear canal is not a sign of poor hygiene.

General cleaning and hygiene

  • Place a damp washcloth over a fingertip to clean the outer ear.
  • Do not insert anything into the ear canal. Avoid cotton swabs (Q-tips) or other objects such as ear candles. They are not effective and may result in injury.

Problems associated with earwax

Occasionally, earwax is too thick and can, overtime, accumulate in the ear canal forming a blockage. These blockages form slowly and gradually as wax builds up. The pace at which this occurs is slow enough that hearing loss often goes unnoticed. When blockages occur, earwax loses its ability to protect the ear canal and to trap dirt, as well as its antibacterial properties.

Several factors can increase the risk of developing earwax blockages

  • A narrow external auditory canal
  • Hair in the ear canal
  • Wearing a hearing aid or earplugs
  • Atrophy of the ceruminous glands in the elderly
  • Using cotton swabs or other objects in the ear canal

Consequences of earwax blockages

  • Itchiness and a feeling of pressure in the ears
  • Gradual hearing loss - either partial or total
  • Buzzing or vertigo
  • Allergies and infections
  • A child with blocked ears may experience delays in learning to speak or at school

Treatment

Several over-the-counter products aimed at dislodging excess earwax can be found at your local drug store. Speak to a pharmacist, as they will be able to advise you.

As a preventive treatment, people prone to earwax buildup can use emollient drops in their ears a few times a week.

However, if you experience bleeding, discharge, pain, any other unusual ear problem, or if you have had ear surgery, promptly consult your family doctor, as they will be able to assess the situation and remove the blockage if necessary.

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