I’m writing about a subject that may not be too appealing or romantic, but it’s something that pretty much affects all of us. I recently wrote about hearing loss and mentioned that a frequent cause of this was from blockage due to ear wax, also called cerumen.
Ear wax is actually not a wax but a mixture of skin cells and oil secreted by glands in the ear canal. Its purpose is to lubricate and protect the sensitive lining of the canal. It has some antimicrobial properties which means it can help to fight off infections.
Most of the time cerumen has a tendency, due to chewing and jaw movements, to move to the opening of the ear where it dries up and flakes out of the ear and disappears, causing us no problems.
When an ear canal is blocked up with cerumen, it is called an impaction. This can occur when one produces an overabundance of ear wax. Another cause of impaction is from the use of a Q Tip which more often than not forces the cerumen deeper into the ear canal rather than cleaning it out. The use of a Q-Tip can also scratch your ear canal and cause an infection. This is why it’s often said not to stick anything in your ear “smaller than your elbow”.
With a cerumen impaction, you will most likely feel a pressure sensation in your ear canal and usually some degree of hearing loss. These are the symptoms that will usually cause a patient to see their doctor.
Once your doctor looks in your ear and verifies the wax blockage he or she has several options to remove it. The most common method used is to flush out the ear with pressurized water. Another method your doctor may use is to take a small wire instrument and, under direct vision, remove the wax manually
There are ear wax removal kits found at pharmacies that contain wax softening drops and a bulb syringe to flush out the ear. Although not always successful, they’re probably worth a try.
I advise my patients after the wax has been removed, to do some home therapy to prevent further wax buildup. Once a week, perhaps when bathing, they should flush out their ears with luke warm water, using a common rubber bulb syringe found at any pharmacy. This method should clean out any wax before it accumulates.
- Terry Hollenbeck, M.D., is an urgent-care physician at Palo Alto Medical Foundation Santa Cruz in Scotts Valley. Readers can view his previous columns on his website, valleydoctor.wordpress.com, or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Information in this column is not intended to replace advice from your own health care professional. For any medical concern, consult your own doctor.