Cerumen is not wax at all, but a blend of dead skin, hair and water soluble secretions from the ear. Cerumen does have a waxy texture. It serves a protective function in the outer third of the ear canal.
Cerumen has self-cleaning, antibacterial and lubricating properties. Unless impacted, the cerumen should not be removed from the ear.
Impaction usually results from laymen trying to remove cerumen with cotton swabs. In reality, the cotton swabs usually pack the cerumen in further and condense it.
Hearing aids can also compact the cerumen, and those who wear hearing aids should see their health care practitioner every six to twelve months to have their ears assessed for excess or impacted cerumen.
Excess cerumen usually migrates out of the ear on its own along with any dust, dirt and other small substances that can collect in the ear canal. The natural act of moving the jaw such as chewing or talking helps to facilitate this process.
Symptoms of Impacted Cerumen
Each year about 12 million people in the U.S. alone seek medical care for impacted cerumen. When cerumen becomes impacted the symptoms include pain, itching, odor, tinnitus (ringing in the ears), a discharge from the ear, and a hearing loss. Balance problems can also be an indication of impacted cerumen.
Consult a Health Care Practitioner for Diagnosis and Treatment
Because these symptoms can also be indicative of other medical issues, a health care practitioner should be consulted for assessment, diagnosis and treatment.
Treatment can include measures such as instilling a cerumenolytic agent such as water, saline or a peroxide agent specifically designed for this process. The ear canal may also need to be irrigated or syringed with warm water or saline. This is usually done about 15-30 minutes after instilling the cerumenolytic agent.
If these two methods are unsuccessful, the practitioner may need to use a suction device or other special instruments to break up and remove the cerumen. This must be done by a health care professional to prevent damage to the ear and eardrum. It may be the method preferred in the case of a previously damage eardrum or those with tubes in place.
Left untreated, cerumen impaction can cause severe pain and lead to infection and hearing loss.
Never Put Anything Smaller than an Elbow Into An Ear
Cotton swabs should not be used to dry ears after bathing, showering or swimming, nor should they be used to attempt to remove cerumen. Oral jet irrigation should never be used in the ears and ear candling should not be used as a means to remove cerumen.
There is no known way to prevent the build up of cerumen, but measures should be taken to avoid causing the impaction such as using cotton swabs.