Sunday, June 24, 2007

Apple #250: Ear Wax

Ear wax is weird stuff.

  • Ear wax is actually a combination of substances.
    • Glands near the external ear canal produce cerumen (comes from a Latin word that means "wax").
    • That substance then combines with flakes of skin, sweat, and oil.
    • Mixed together, that's ear wax. Delightful, isn't it?
  • Ear wax can range in texture from almost liquid to firm or nearly solid.
    • The moisture content of ear wax is an inherited trait.
    • This means that people originating from different parts of the globe have wax of different consistency.
    • European-origin folks have moister wax, while Asian-origin folks have drier wax.
  • Wax can also range in color, from a very pale yellow, to a deeper yellow, to reddish brown. The darker the wax, the longer it has been in your ear.

Cerumen is produced by glands that line the ear canal.
The cerumen mixes with skin and sweat and body oils and becomes ear wax.
Then it travels the canal away from the ear drum (tympanic membrane) out of the ear.
(Diagram owned by Northwestern, used by Dr. Timothy Hain)

  • Aided by the tiny hairs that line the ear canal, ear wax will travel out of the canal to the outer portion of your ear.
  • Once the wax reaches that outer portion, it will dry, turn flaky, and fall out.
  • You should not use Q-tips to clean the wax out of your ears, tempting though it may be. This is because, while the swab will collect some of the wax at the outer portion of the ear, it will push even more of it back toward the ear drum.
  • If you get enough wax pressing up against your ear drum, you will start to have trouble hearing, and you may even wind up with a perforated ear drum.
  • In addition, the wax helps to keep dirt and bacteria and other nasty things from traveling the ear canal to the sensitive and crucial parts of your ear. If you have removed the moist wax from your ear, there will be little available to combat those nasties, and you are more likely to get an infection.
  • Ear wax build-up is the number one cause of hearing loss. But most of the time, that wax build-up is caused when the ear's owner has used some pointy object like a Q-tip to try to remove the wax and has succeeded only in jamming the wax farther into the ear.
  • So unless you want to give yourself an infection or hearing loss, don't stick anything pointy in your ear! I know it's tempting. Believe me, I do.
  • If you really must get that wax out of there on your own, you can try these methods:
    • Put a few small drops of mineral oil (baby oil) or olive oil into your ear. Let the drops sit for a few moments, then tilt your head the other way to encourage the oil to slide out. Rest your head on a towel -- no need to jerk yourself around -- and allow the oil and excess wax to slide out on its own.
    • If your ear seems to be really plugged, you can try those ear wax removal kits from the pharmacy. Follow the directions on the box closely.

One commonly available method to remove ear wax at home.
(You can buy this product for $8.19 from

    • You should never try either of these removal techniques if your ear drum is perforated.
  • It can be hard to tell if your ear drum is perforated, or ruptured. But here are some signs:
    • Sharp, sudden pain in one ear
    • Sudden drainage from the ear that is pus-filled or bloody
    • Hearing loss, often accompanied with pain
    • Ringing (tinnitus) in the ears, often accompanied with pain.
  • If your ear wax is dark brown, don't confuse that with blood. Ear wax turns brown when it gets old, and that's perfectly normal. If that was blood coming out your ear, you'd know it.
  • If you think your ear drum has been ruptured, go to the doctor. Don't stick anything in there, not even ear drops. Let the doctor take a look and decide what treatment is necessary. Most ruptures will heal on their own within two months. But in some cases, the doctor might tell you to wear a patch over your ear to keep out infection or to take antibiotics, or the doctor might recommend surgery.
  • Here's one last ear wax fact for you: in medieval times, monks used to use ear wax to smooth out the pigmentation for illuminated manuscripts. Resourceful, eh?

James K. Bredenkamp MD, "Ear Wax," MedicineNet
Timothy C. Hain, MD, Ear Wax, August 2002
American Academy of Otolaryngology - Head and Neck Surgery, Earwax and Perforated Eardrum Deafness, Audiology - Ear Wax, Brian Taylor, Clinical Audiologist
Mayo Clinic, Diseases and Conditions, Ruptured Eardrum, February 2, 2007
National Institutes of Health, National Library of Medicine, Medline Plus Medical Encyclopedia, Ruptured Eardrum, February 19, 2007
Columbia University, Fathom, An Introduction to Anglo-Saxon Manuscripts, Session 4: Materials and Techniques.

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