Earwax or cerumen is a sticky substance produced by the wax glands of the ear. It mainly protects the interior parts of the ear from possible damage that can be caused by dust, dirt, and harmful microorganisms.
For most of us, earwax is nothing more but a dirty yellowish, sticky substance that we try to get rid of as soon as possible to maintain cleanliness and personal hygiene. However, this yellowish, waxy substance is produced by the wax gland to serve an important purpose. The exact medical term for earwax is cerumen. Below is a brief discussion on what causes earwax, its types, and functions.
What is Earwax?
Earwax is produced by the specialized wax glands, known as ceruminous glands present in the outer ear canal. The cerumen or earwax produced by these glands slowly move towards the opening of the ear, from where it falls off on its own or gets removed when we wash our ears.
So, cerumen is basically a viscous secretion that is produced by the sebaceous or wax glands. It is primarily composed of saturated and unsaturated long-chain fatty acids, cholesterol, and dead skin cells. The movement of cerumen is facilitated by some tiny hair lining the ear canal.
What Causes Impacted Earwax
- As long as earwax comes out of the ear canal on its own, it does not cause any trouble. But sometimes, it can get pushed deep inside the ear canal and fail to come out. This can cause earwax to build up inside the ear canal, which is known as impacted earwax.
- There can be several reasons behind a buildup of excess earwax inside the ear canal. But more commonly, it is caused by the use of Q-tips or cotton swabs, which push the wax deeper into the ear canal. Therefore, cotton swabs or hair grips should never be used for removing earwax from inside the ear canal.
- The dry type of cerumen is more likely to get wedged in the ear canal. This may be the reason why elderly people are more prone to earwax problems as earwax becomes dry with growing age. Earwax problems are also common among individuals who use ear plugs and hearing aids.
- One can also experience impacted earwax when the ear fails to perform its regular functions or due to a structural abnormality of the ear canal. Some people can have a narrow ear canal. Sometimes, the structure of the ear canal can be such that earwax cannot come out naturally.
- Apart from these, the presence of excessive hair in the ear canal and development of benign bony growths or osteomata in the outer part of the ear canal can raise the risk of developing a buildup of earwax.
Types of Earwax
There are mainly two types of earwax – dry cerumen and wet cerumen. Dry cerumen is usually gray and flaky, while the wet type is moist and yellowish or dark brown in color. Dry cerumen is usually found in East Asians and the Native Americans, while Caucasians and Africans are more likely to have the wet type of earwax.
What are the Functions of Earwax?
Earwax may seem dirty, but it has several important functions in our body. First of all, it moisturizes the skin of the ear canal and thus protects it from dryness. As a lubricating agent, it protects the skin of the ear canal from irritation. Due to its adhesive quality, earwax can trap dust, dirt, and harmful microorganisms like bacteria and fungi, and prevent their entry into the inner ear and eardrum. Furthermore, earwax is known to have antibacterial and antifungal properties, owing to which it can protect the ear canal from infections.
So, earwax usually helps keep our ears clean and protects them from infections. But, a buildup of excess earwax can sometimes cause pain and a sensation of fullness or ringing in the ear (tinnitus). Eventually, hearing can get affected, if there is a blockage in the ear canal. Physicians usually recommend ear drops or use specialized instruments to remove impacted earwax. They can also irrigate the ear with water and ear drops to remove the blockage.