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Earwax is a Good Thing
Did you hear that right? Yes, we said it! Earwax, or cerumen, often gets a bad rap, but it's normal and even healthy. In average amounts, cerumen acts as a protective barrier to keep out infection, dust/dirt, and even foreign objects. A lack of earwax can lead to dry and itchy ears that are more vulnerable to infections such as "swimmer's ear."
But as is often the case, too much of a good thing can be, well, not good. For most of us, our outer ears are self-cleaning. Both old skin and earwax typically migrate slowly out the ear canal opening and are discarded. Sometimes, however, earwax can get trapped, and even impacted. Although not well understood, certain people tend to produce more earwax than others. It's also a normal part of the aging process for earwax to become drier and harder, increasing the likelihood of impaction.
An overabundance of earwax can lead to discomfort, tinnitus (ringing in the ears), a feeling of fullness in the ears, and even hearing loss. Although there is no evidence that wearing hearing protection increases the occurrence of wax impactions, excessive earwax or other outer ear problems can certainly interfere with the comfortable use of earplugs. A worker may need to wear earmuffs instead of earplugs until medical clearance is received.
Tips for maintaining healthy ear canals:
• Remember your ear canals are generally self-cleaning. As needed, use a damp wash cloth only in the outer part of the ear.
• Do not attempt to clean your ears with cotton swabs or other objects such as pencils and keys; this will only push earwax further down into the ear and may result in scratches to the ear canal, leaving you vulnerable to infections.
• Do not attempt "ear candling," which is generally considered ineffective and could even result in serious injury.
• See your doctor if you routinely have earwax build-up or experience pain, tinnitus, hearing loss, or a feeling of fullness in your ears.
• With your physician's guidance, if needed, consider routine home treatments such as mineral oil, glycerin, or commercially available earwax softening kits.
To learn more about cerumen and ear care, see these helpful resources:
Medline Plus, National Institutes of Health. Ear wax.
American Academy of Otolaryngology. Earwax and care.
CavCom SoundBytes, April 2015. Aging and the Ear Canal.
U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Ear Candling: Ineffective and Risky.