Technically, ear wax is known as cerumen. It is secreted naturally in the outer ear canal by special glands, and slowly moves out to clear away dust and debris that enters the ear. It also acts to keep the skin lining the canal lubricated and to protect it from water and other irritants. The ear is designed to be self-cleaning, and attempts to clean it may pack the wax down hard on the eardrum or damage the ear canal.
Ear wax may cause problems if excess is produced, the wax is too thick, the ear canal is narrow, or the person works in a dusty and dirty environment. When wax builds up on the eardrum, it cannot transmit vibrations on to the inner ear, and so causes varying degrees of deafness, itching, and sometimes pain. Water entering the ear during bathing or swimming may cause the wax to swell.
Cerumen may be removed by syringing, suction or fine forceps. In syringing, warm water is gently squirted into the ear to dislodge the wax, with large lumps being removed by forceps. The use of wax-softening drops (eg. docusate sodium) may be necessary to facilitate the removal of particularly large or hard accumulations of wax. Those with recurrent problems should use wax-softening drops on a regular basis.
Those who produce excessive amounts of wax can benefit from using wax softening drops on a regular (eg. weekly, monthly) basis to keep the ear clear, but should NEVER insert any foreign object (eg. cotton bud, bobby pin) into the ear in an attempt to clean it. Remember the saying – “The only thing you should put in your ear is your elbow!”
Ear wax normally causes no problems, and merely fulfils its cleaning role, but sometimes an infection may start in the skin of the outer ear canal under the wax causing significant pain.
Strangely, it has been discovered that women who have soft ear wax have a much higher risk of breast cancer than those with hard ear wax.