What is it
Cerumen, or earwax, is the yellow-orange substance normally secreted by glands in the outer portion of the ear canal. The main function of wax is to lubricate the canal, protecting the skin from infection and other conditions. The wax can cause serious problems when it’s oversecreted and builds up excessively in the ear, or when it’s pushed deep into the ear canal. This often “plugs” the ear, leading to discomfort and a feeling of fullness in the ear.
Wax buildup isn’t a problem for most people. In the normal course of events, earwax gradually dries up in small particles and migrates to the outer ear, where it falls out of the ear or is washed off.
Some people use cotton swabs or even bobby pins to clean wax ft-om their ear canal (the tube leading to the eardrum). Such objects can push wax up against the eardrum and temporarily impair hearing. They can also irritate the deli- cate skin of the canal or, far worse, perforate the drum.
- Diminution of hearing, with or without pain.
- Pain of varying intensity (sometimes).
- Balance problems (rare).
What causes it
Typically, the wax is secreted, flakes off, and starts to move out of the ear. Buildup occurs when the wax inexplicably moves inward instead. Many times, earwax problems are self- induced. Often wax is packed into a ball and pushed inward with a cotton-tip applicator.
What if you do nothing
Serious buildups of wax need to be initially treated by a physician, otherwise pain, hearing, and balance problems may develop.
Clean your ears methodically
If wax does accumulate, take the following steps. Using an eyedropper, put a drop or two of warm (not hot) mineral or vegetable oil in each ear twice a day. Then, using a bulb syringe, flush the ear with warm water, holding your head upright and then turning it sideways to allow the water to drain. (However, if you have a perforated eardrum, never put any liquid in your ear).
Over-the-counter earwax softeners are harmless, but no better than mineral oil. Don’t use hydrogen peroxide or any other product that causes fizzing in your ear, since pressure can build up that might injure your eardrum.
If you don’t have a tendency to produce an over-abundance of earwax, simply avoid using cotton-tip applicators for cleaning your ears. Instead, clean and dry your outer ears with cotton balls after bathing.