Having some earwax in the ears is healthy. This substance protects your ear canal from germs and dirt, but if it builds up, earwax can be problematic. It can lead to irritation, infection, hearing problems, and yes, even tinnitus. This article will hopefully help you understand what’s normal and what’s not so you can take better care of your ears and prevent uncomfortable blockages.
What Is Earwax?
Firstly, understand that earwax is a perfectly normal, natural substance. The majority of the wax is produced by sebaceous glands. These glands, located in the outer third portion of the ear canal, constantly produce a small amount of waxy oil that protects, moisturize and cleans your ears.
Earwax waterproofs the lining of your ear canal, sweeps away dirt and dead skin cells, traps dust and particles before they reach your fragile middle and inner ears, and protects you from bacterial and fungal infections.Earwax (technically called cerumen) is mostly made of sebum – fats, cholesterol, keratin, dead skin cells, and other waste products. Healthy earwax can range from yellow to brown, and can be either oily or dry and flaky.
"Treble Health helped me reduce my tinnitus by about 80%, and now I can live my life again!"
"Treble Health helped me reduce my tinnitus by about 80%, and now I can live my life again!"
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Understanding Ear Anatomy
The visible parts of your ear make up only part of your auditory system. Your outer ear is made up of rigid cartilage, skin, and some glands. Inside, a canal leads to your eardrum (tympanic membrane), which vibrates when sound waves reach your ear. Beyond the eardrum, you have the middle ear, which contains three tiny bones – the malleus, the incus, and the stapes.
These bones transfer vibrations from the eardrum to the inner ear, which houses the actual hearing organ. This organ is called the cochlea. The cochlea is a snail-shaped structure filled with fluid that allows you to hear and helps you maintain your sense of balance. Cochlea is lined with tiny hairs. The hair cells send electrical impulses to your brain, which is then interpreted as sound.
Your auditory system is very sensitive and contains many small, delicate components. Without a healthy layer of earwax to protect your ears, something as seemingly-insignificant as a speck of dust can cause a surprising amount of damage. It’s this damage that can lead to tinnitus, hearing loss, vertigo, and a host of other ear-related problems.
What’s A Normal Amount of Earwax?
If you don’t notice significant changes to your hearing or the physical sensations in and around your ears, chances are you have a normal amount of earwax. The actual quantity depends on your body’s natural wax production, so some people develop more wax than others.
It is possible to have too little earwax. In this case, your ears might feel itchy due to the dirt and particles that should be swept away. However, if you’re hearing tinnitus sounds and think it might be due to earwax, you’re more likely to have too much. Earwax buildup can also lead to earache or even infection.
What Is Wax Buildup?
Earwax is part of your body’s natural defense system. It usually develops, cleans your ears, and passes out of your ear canal easily, but it can build up. This buildup can be hard dry clumps, compacted wax deep in your ear canal, or simply an excessive amount of healthy wax that isn’t flushing out as usual.
The ear canal has a natural mechanism of ridding of excess wax. The skin inside the ear canal migrates outwards, bringing wax out with it. However, certain conditions or habits may interfere with this natural process.
There are several common signs and symptoms of earwax buildup:
- Hearing loss. Excessive earwax can block up your hearing canal, physically preventing sound waves from entering and being interpreted by your ears as normal.
- A sensation of fullness. Your ears have tiny nerves throughout, and compacted wax may put pressure on these nerves.
- Dizziness. Your inner ears play a significant role in your sense of equilibrium, and pressure from earwax buildup can irritate your vestibular system.
- Ear infection. If left untreated, the bacteria and viruses trapped in excessive earwax can cause infection.
- Itching or earache. Wax buildup can be very irritating to your ear canal, leading to itchiness or pain.
- Discharge. Your body may attempt to flush out debris or earwax buildup with fluid production.
- Tinnitus. Excess wax can change the natural resonance of the ear canal and reduce the amount of sound reaching auditory cortex, which may be interpreted by the brain as tinnitus. Alternatively, ear wax may simply by situated close to or touching the ear drum, creating a sensation of sound causing you to experience tinnitus.
What Causes Earwax Buildup?
Some people are predisposed to excessive earwax and there are several medical conditions and some medications that could lead to earwax buildup. Frequent ear infections may also lead to excessive earwax production.
Cleaning your ears too much or too vigorously can even “train” your body to produce more earwax. You might also naturally produce very hard or dry earwax, which may not be able to pass from your ear canals as easily.
Older people, especially those with a lot of ear hair, tend to produce earwax faster than younger people. On the other hand, small children seem to produce more earwax than adults. Their ear canals are smaller, so it doesn’t take much before wax can build up.
Avoid Inserting Objects into Your Ears
There’s a reason Q-Tips have a warning label not to use them to clean your ears. Cotton swabs don’t remove much earwax – they’re more likely to push it deeper into your ear canal, forcing germs and debris toward the most fragile parts of your auditory system and causing cerumen impaction.
Earbuds or earplugs can also increase the likelihood of cerumen impaction. Every time you put in a pair of earbuds, you’re pushing the wax deeper into your ear canal while trapping sweat, moisture, and dirt inside your ear. This can easily lead to blockages – not to mention potentially causing hearing damage, if you listen to music at high volumes.
Can Earwax Trigger Tinnitus?
Earwax collects in our ear canal, which runs all the way into the eardrum. On the other side of the eardrum is the space called the middle ear, which contains our three hearing bones. Middle ear is connected to the inner ear, where our hearing organ, known as the cochlea is situated.
A small amount of earwax is healthy and natural. However, over time earwax can build up and create an impaction, which can be a problem. It’s common to have impacted earwax when you have small ear canals, or if you use Q-Tips or earbuds regularly.
Significant earwax causes temporary hearing loss, which means that sound is not able to go through your ear canal into the cochlea and ultimately up to the auditory processing part of your brain. When auditory cortex is not able to process sound normally, that could be one possible reason for earwax impaction can resulting in temporary tinnitus in the effected ear. Removing ear wax may be necessary to alleviate these symptoms.
Will My Tinnitus Go Away After Removing Ear Wax?
The good news is that when you remove excessive earwax, hearing typically returns back to normal and any temporary tinnitus goes away. If not, your tinnitus is likely caused by a different health condition, and you should see your doctor. Either way, it is absolutely essential to remove ear wax safely and correctly.
How To Remove Earwax
Healthy ears produce a normal amount of earwax that doesn’t need to be specially removed. For most people, regular bathing habits are usually enough to keep earwax at a normal level.
You don’t need to use any tools to keep your ears clean (that includes cotton swabs) and a good rule of thumb is to never use anything smaller than your elbow to clean your ears. If you like, you can use a tissue or a wash cloth to wipe on the outside of your ear canal.
If you do have excessive earwax, there are two ways to remove minor earwax buildup at home. The first way involves using ear drops, like Debrox, to soften the wax in order to help remove it. A few drops of olive or baby oil are safe to use as well.
The second way involves using a syringe with spray and letting the wax come out naturally. Avoid ear candles, as there is no scientific basis for its effectiveness for impacted ear wax removal and can be dangerous (for more info, check out this video by Dr. Cliff). You doctor might also recommend that you use hydrogen peroxide to help remove impacted wax.
When there is a large amount of wax or when the wax is impacted deep in the ear canal, professional earwax removal may be needed. You can have your wax removed by a primary care doctor, an ear nose and throat ENT physician, or an audiologist. These professionals have the proper training expertise and tools. They have the ability to do an ear wash, to use a vacuum using gentle suction or curette to scoop out any earwax – even if earwax blockage is deeply impacted or hard to remove.
What to Do If Tinnitus Doesn’t Go Away After Ear Wax Removal
If you are still experiencing tinnitus after proper impacted ear wax removal, it is time to visit an audiologist. Tinnitus stems from many causes. Some of the causes are ear related, such as age related hearing loss, exposure to loud noises, or in rare cases, possibly Ménière’s disease. Tinnitus can also occur as a side effect to a medical condition, such as high blood pressure, certain antibiotics, or a head injury.
It is important to understand the root cause of the ringing in your ears and receive treatment if necessary. Your doctor will do a medical evaluation to rule out physical problems or major health conditions and perform a hearing evaluation to understand your hearing ability.
In some cases, tinnitus persists even after managing other health conditions. Treating tinnitus with various tinnitus management options may be necessary. Many tinnitus sufferers find relief with hearing aids (if they have hearing loss), tinnitus retraining therapy (TRT), cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), lifestyle modifications, or other tinnitus management techniques. If you’re experiencing ongoing tinnitus, talk to the audiologists at Treble Health to discover ways you can achieve tinnitus relief.