Most people have grown up using cotton swabs, also known as Q-Tips, to clean earwax out of their ears. But according to Seth Schwartz, M.D., an author of Clinical Practice Guidelines on cerumen impaction for the American Academy of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery (AAO-HNS), using cotton swabs to clean out earwax can result in impaction.
6. Does Earwax Have a Purpose?
Made by the body to keep ears clean and free from bacteria, earwax is part of the body’s defense system. Earwax doesn’t come from deep inside the ear, though it might seem like it does. The glands in the outer half of the ear canal secrete wax, keeping debris and foreign microbes out. Typically, our jaw movements, like chewing and swallowing, move old earwax outwards toward the opening of the canal. Once the wax reaches the outer areas of the ear, it dries out and flakes away.
Although it might look icky, earwax — also known as cerumen— isn’t harmful. Earwax lubricates the ear and keeps it healthy. But as with many things, however, too much of a good thing can have bad consequences, like earwax impaction.
5. What Is Earwax Impaction?
Anyone can find themselves with what they might consider to be too much earwax. However, earwax production increases with age. A third of older adults have more than an ideal amount of earwax, and about two-thirds of people in nursing homes have an excessive amount of wax in their ears.
Along with age, genetic makeup is another factor when it comes to earwax. Studies show that the kind of earwax a person has, wet versus dry, depends on genetics. In particular, smelly wet earwax is primarily due to a person’s genes.
Most of the time, bathing and cleaning the outer ear is sufficient enough to get rid of excess ear wax. But whether a person is young or old, or has wet or dry earwax, earwax impaction (blockage) can still occur.
If earwax accumulates and is pushed back into the ear — usually by cotton swabs — then earwax impaction can develop. The affected ear can feel painful and full, and hearing may become impaired. Left untreated, an infection can start. Because the eardrum and ear canal area is fragile, it’s recommended that a physician remove and treat earwax impaction.