Earwax: Facts, Functions, and Health Problems
A Protective Secretion
Earwax doesn't usually get much respect. In fact, it's often considered to be a somewhat disgusting secretion. It's actually a very useful substance and helps to keep our ears healthy.
Earwax coats the skin lining the ear canal and carries dirt, hair, dead cells, and other debris out of the canal. It also kills microorganisms. By doing these jobs, the wax helps to protect the eardrum from injury. The eardrum lies at the end of the ear canal and plays an important role in our ability to hear.
Normally, earwax does its jobs invisibly and very well. Sometimes, however, the ear makes too much wax. If this becomes trapped inside the ear canal, it may form a plug known as an impaction. An impaction can be painful and can interfere with hearing. Fortunately, there are several ways to safely remove trapped earwax.
Parts of the Ear
The human ear consists of three parts. The visible part, which is usually called "the ear" by most people, is actually only a small section of the organ.
- The outer ear consists of the visible ear flap at the side of the head, which is known as the pinna or auricle, and the auditory canal, which is also known as the ear canal. The ear canal transports sound waves to the middle ear.
- The middle ear begins at the eardrum. The eardrum is a membrane that is connected to three tiny bones known as ossicles. These little bones are the malleus (or hammer), the incus (anvil), and the stapes (stirrup). Sound waves from the outer ear cause the eardrum to vibrate. The eardrum sends the vibrations to the ossicles.
- The inner ear contains the cochlea, or organ of hearing, as well as the semicircular canals, which play a role in balance. The vibrating stapes causes a membranous window in the wall of the cochlea to vibrate. This in turn causes the fluid inside the cochlea to vibrate. The vibrating fluid stimulates hair cells, which trigger the auditory nerve to send a message to the brain. The brain then creates the sensation of hearing.
Glands of the Auditory Canal
The skin that lines the ear canal contains both sebaceous glands and ceruminous glands, which produce secretions that combine to make earwax. The scientific name for earwax is cerumen.
Sebaceous glands are also found in the skin that covers the body surface, apart from the skin on the palms of the hands and the soles of the feet. The glands produce an oily secretion that waterproofs skin and protects it from bacteria and fungi. The ceruminous glands are specialized sweat glands. They produce a waxy secretion.
Researchers have discovered that cerumen contains long-chain fatty acids, cholesterol, squalene, and various types of alcohols. The ratio of these chemicals and the exact composition of cerumen varies and is influenced by diet, environment, age, and ethnicity.
Types of Earwax
It may be surprising to learn that not everyone's earwax looks the same. Two types of earwax exist in humans—wet and dry. The wet type is golden or brown in color and is moist and sticky. The dry kind is light grey, white, or pale tan in color and has a flaky texture.
The appearance of earwax is genetically determined. People with a European or African background tend to have wet wax, while people with an Asian or Native American background tend to have dry wax.
Sometimes the earwax of older people becomes drier. In addition, their ears may become less effective at shedding wax than when they were younger, which causes the secretion to collect in the auditory canal.
Earwax Type and Body Odor
Although it sounds like a strange idea, the type of earwax produced by a person is linked to whether or not they have smelly armpits. Researchers have found that people with wet wax are very likely to produce underarm odor, while those with dry wax are very unlikely to produce underarm odor.
Eccrine and Apocrine Sweat Glands
The sweat glands over most of our skin are called eccrine glands. They produce a watery sweat that contains salt and is odorless. This sweat evaporates to cool us down.
Under the arms we have a different type of sweat gland—the apocrine gland. This produces a sweat containing fats and proteins. Bacteria on the skin break these substances down to make smelly chemicals. Apocrine glands exist on other parts of the body, but the ones under our arms are the greatest contributor to body odor.
The ABCC11 Gene and Apocrine Glands
The ceruminous glands in the ear canal are a type of apocrine gland. Scientists know that a variant of a gene known as ABCC11 is responsible for both dry earwax and lack of armpit odor. The possession of two copies of the gene variant affects the action of apocrine glands in both the ear canal and the armpit. The mechanism by which the effects are produced is still being studied.
Dominant and Recessive Alleles
Different variants or versions of a gene are technically known as alleles. Two alleles of the ABCC11 gene control earwax type and body odor. The ABCC11 allele that produces wet wax and smelly armpits is dominant, while the allele that produces dry wax and odorless armpits is recessive. Dominant alleles always do their job (at the appropriate time and location); recessive alleles can only do their job when no dominant allele is present.
We have two copies of the ABCC11 gene in our cells. One came from our mother and the other came from our father. If both are the dominant allele, or if one is the dominant allele and the other is the recessive allele, we will have wet earwax and underarm odor. If both are the recessive allele we will have dry earwax and no underarm odor.
Too much wax can block the ear canal, but too little can also be harmful. It increases the chance of infections and may cause the canal to itch.
Functions of Earwax
The job of earwax is to clean the ear canal. It does this by sweeping away dirt, microorganisms, hairs, and dead skin cells shed by the lining of the canal. The wax keeps the environment in the canal acidic, which seems to be necessary for a healthy ear.
Earwax also lubricates the ear canal, which stops it from drying out. The lubrication not only prevents the ear from become itchy but also stops tiny cracks and crevices from forming on the wall of the canal. These crevices can easily trap bacteria, which could lead to an infection.
The Ear Canal's Self-Cleaning Mechanism
Normally, the movement of the jaw during speaking and eating helps to push earwax along the ear canal to its entrance. Here the wax dries into small pieces or flakes, which are shed. For most people, cleaning the inside of the pinna and the entrance to the ear canal is enough to remove the pieces of wax. The ear canal itself should be left alone, unless a person is following medical advice.
Sometimes the body's natural method of wax removal isn't successful and help is needed. If wax can't escape from the ear canal it may form a clump that blocks the passageway. In this condition it's said to be impacted. Impaction can develop if the ear canal is crooked or if a hearing aid or ear plug covers the canal, for example. Some people produce more earwax than others, which may increase the risk of blockages.
Possible Symptoms of Impacted Earwax
There are several possible symptoms of impacted wax in the ear canal. They can also be symptoms of other problems, such as an ear infection. Hearing loss can be caused by wax blocking the ear canal, but it can also be caused by a perforated eardrum, an inner ear problem, or an auditory nerve problem.
Symptoms of impacted earwax may include:
- hearing loss
- ringing in the ears (tinnitus)
- a sense of fullness in the ears
- ear pain
- an itchy sensation in the ear
When unusual or unpleasant symptoms develop in the ear, it's important to visit a doctor to get a diagnosis. If hearing loss is sudden or if one of the symptoms is loss of balance, a fever, or vomiting, the affected person should go to a hospital right away instead of waiting for a doctor's appointment.
Cleaning the Auditory Canal
Seek Medical Advice
Cleaning the ear canal should be done by a medical professional or by following his or her instructions. Doctors have special tools to clear wax and debris from the ear canal. In addition, they have the skill and experience needed to remove impacted wax safely.
Once the ear is examined and a diagnosis is made, the doctor may say that self-treatment for a problem is okay. The doctor may also be able to suggest ways to prevent the wax buildup from happening again.
Doctors often recommend that a person uses oil or water based ear drops to soften their earwax. Wax softening products are known as cerumenolytics. They mustn't be used if the eardrum is perforated, however. Doctors may also suggest that softened earwax is washed out with a special solution applied with a rubber-bulb syringe or other device. Once again, this mustn't be done if there is a hole in the eardrum. Liquids that enter the middle ear may cause a serious infection.
An Important Warning
Medical professionals say that it’s very important that nothing hard is inserted into the ear canal, not even a Q tip or other cotton swab (or cotton bud). Hard objects that enter the canal may scrape and injure its wall. Earwax usually forms in the outer third of the ear canal, but a cotton swab may push the wax further into the canal and cause it to become more compact. In addition, the wax plug may jam against the eardrum and damage it, or the object placed in the ear may injure the eardrum by itself.
My Experience With Impacted Earwax Removal
I recently had impacted earwax removed from one ear by a doctor before I got a hearing test. The wax was removed by a water jet applied at a safe pressure. The procedure was quick, painless, and effective. The only problem that I experienced was dizziness after the wax removal. The dizziness lasted for around a minute.
The American Academy of Otolaryngology—Head and Neck Surgery recommends that water placed in the ear be at room temperature in order to avoid dizziness. The water placed in my ear was cool.
Ear Candling and Potential Problems
Some alternate medicine practitioners promote ear candling as a method for removing earwax. Health agencies say that there is no evidence that this process is effective and that it's potentially dangerous.
The "candle" is a hollow cone or tube made of waxed cloth or cloth that has been soaked in paraffin. It's usually about ten inches long. The tapered end of the candle is inserted into the ear and the other end is lit. The heat from the burning candle supposedly creates a negative pressure or suction that draws wax out of the ear. Ear candling is said to help a range of health problems in addition to the buildup of earwax.
Researchers say that the residue that forms on burning ear candles comes from the candle material and isn't earwax. They also say that candles can:
- burn the face or ear
- block the ear canal with candle wax
- push earwax further into the ear canal
- puncture the ear drum
- delay potentially effective treatments for a health problem
Other mammals besides humans produce earwax, including dogs, cats, rabbits, whales, and many other animals.
Some Surprising Facts About Earwax
- The long wax plugs in whale ears show dark and light layers that correspond to different feeding seasons. They've been used to indicate the age of dead whales.
- The wax plug may be as long as ten inches in the blue whale, which is the largest animal on Earth.
- Analyzing the earwax of a dead blue whale can indicate what pollutants it was exposed to during its lifetime and determine when the production of certain hormones peaked in its body.
- Medieval artists sometimes added earwax to the paints that they used to illustrate manuscripts.
- Same cat owners report that their pet loves the taste of human earwax.
Earwax is a useful substance for us and other animals. We may not think much about it unless it causes problems, but it serves us well.
- Earwax information from the American Academy of Otolaryngology - Head and Neck Surgery
- Cerumen facts from The Conversation
- Earwax blockage information from the Mayo Clinic
- Exploring the earwax gene and the need for deodorant use from The Guardian online newspaper
- Facts about the earwax of whales from The Atlantic
Questions & Answers
My dog licked my ear. What will happen?
Probably nothing will happen. The human body has a great ability to fight many types of germs, especially if they are from a dog in your own family. I’ve had my dog’s tongue reach my ear before with no problem. I hope you washed your ear after your dog licked it, but even if you didn’t, there will probably be no problem. That being said, you should watch out for any changes in the ear and visit a doctor if necessary.
© 2013 Linda Crampton