Why do we have earwax?
And what's the deal with (perfectly ear-shaped) cotton swabs? Is it good or bad to use them in your ears?
Fri, Apr 12 2013 at 3:27 PM
Photo: Yuliya Evstratenko/Shutterstock
Ah, the age-old question. I was waiting for this one. I actually pondered this question myself many a night trying to get the wax out of my son’s ear while he slept. I know what you’re thinking. I’m a sneaky mommy. Well, I can’t argue there. I also cut his nails, trim his hair, and feed him vegetables while he sleeps (kidding about that last one). But you would too if your child screamed and ran from you every time you tried going near his ears.
But I digress …
The truth is that earwax — called cerumen by medical professionals — is actually a protectant for our ears and isn’t all bad. In fact, it’s pretty darn good. You see, earwax serves a very important purpose: to lubricate and protect the ear from outside intruders, such as dirt, debris or worse (like roaches). Without earwax, our ears would not only itch like crazy, but also put our inner ear and our brain at serious peril. Imagine earwax as the castle guards, if you will.
Once earwax has served its purpose, it travels from the inner ear to the outer ear and eventually falls out on its own. You also might need to occasionally scoop some out yourself if you see it sitting there. But be wary of Q-tips — they can actually pack the earwax in tighter instead of taking it out, or worse, puncture your eardrum. Instead, to practice good earwax hygiene at home, clean the skin outside the ear with a damp cloth and that’s it. As my kindergarten teacher used to tell us, don’t stick anything in your ear smaller than your elbow (after a snot-nosed boy named Mark tried to see how far he could put a crayon in his ear). Go ahead — try it. You can’t stick your elbow in your ear. Point being: Nothing should be in there.
If you suspect you may have too much earwax buildup, which can happen to some people, you might be experiencing symptoms such as an ear infection, hearing loss, feeling as though your ear is plugged up, or even ear pain. If this is the case, you can try an over-the-counter earwax removal solution. I’ve done it, and it burns, burns, burns, but is definitely effective on small buildups. Some people also recommend putting in a few drops of mineral or baby oil into the ear to loosen up the earwax, then lying ear-side down on a cloth to let the earwax run out. (This should not be done if you suspect you have a hole in your eardrum).
If you’ve tried these solutions and are still feeling discomfort, or if you think you may have a more serious buildup, you can have your doctor take a look at it. If he determines that too much earwax is your problem, he can use a special instrument (that looks like the top side of a needle, but softer) to take it out. This is probably the safest and most effective way to deal with the issue. Again, I stress, don’t try to stick something in there yourself.
As fun as it may be, don’t get into the habit of cleaning your ears too often. Earwax is one of those things our body makes that helps and protects us, no matter how much it may gross us out. So raise your glass, people — let’s hear it for earwax!
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