Earwax, less commonly referred to as cerumen, is not bad or disgusting. In fact it has a very important function in protecting the ear from bacteria, fungi, insects and water. It also helps to clean and lubricate the ear canal.

Earwax can be many colours
Earwax can be many colours.

Earwax is produced in the outer part of the ear canal and mainly consists of dead shed skin. The ear has a normal tendency to push out dead shed skin, starting at the eardrum along with the underlying migrating epithelium cells. Jaw movement during chewing aids to this slow process. The rest of the earwax is made up of secretions from ear glands and consist of fatty acids, alcohol, cholesterol and squalene.

The colour and consistency of earwax differ from person to person. It is genetically determined whether patients have wet or dry wax.

An excessive amount of earwax may block the ear canal, leading to hearing loss. Self-cleaning of the ears are still the most common cause for abnormal wax accumulation although hearing aids may also contribute. Wax blockage (impaction) may lead to infections, dizziness and damage to hearing aids.

Some people are more prone to develop wax build up. Although it is generally not required to remove wax from the ears some individuals may actually benefit from it. It is not advised to try and remove earwax with cotton buds as they can actually compress the wax even more. If used, only the outside part of the ear should be cleaned. Any other form of instrumental cleaning, or probing of the ear for that matter, is not advised unless performed by a trained medical professional. Injury to the ear canal may lead to infection and if the ear drum is injured, hearing loss and vertigo.

Wax may be softened by a number of different oils and drops but care should be taken not to use with eardrum perforation as permanent damage to hearing can occur. It is not encouraged to use any drops in the ear unless prescribed by a medical professional.

Other methods of wax removal include syringing, suctioning and removal with a curette under direct microscopic vision by an ENT specialist. The use of alternative methods such as ear candles is strongly discouraged.