Let’s face it: earwax (also known as cerumen) is often considered the dirty, smelly part of audiology. In over twenty-nine years of treating patients, I have been amazed at how the presence of earwax horrifies my patients. They often go to great extremes to clean their ears prior to their appointments, worried that the presence of cerumen is a sign of poor hygiene.
However, the reality is that the wax inside the ears has many wonderful benefits, except in instances of overaccumulation. It is a natural moisturizer which traps unwelcome dirt and dust, plus it has protective properties that prevent bacteria from reaching the inner ear.
In addition, cerumen has antimicrobial properties that prevent the growth of certain bacteria and fungi, thus preventing external ear infections.
Current Research About Earwax
It is no surprise that researchers are finding other reasons to extol the values of earwax. In an article recently forwarded to me by a colleague, Dr. Herane-Vives discusses the potential for using cerumen to monitor cortisol levels, hopefully leading to an easier method of diagnosing and managing psychiatric conditions like depression. In a similar, unrelated article (What Your Earwax Says About Your Ancestry), researchers refer to cortisol levels found in the earwax of a blue whale, which indicate periods of stress during the whale’s lifetime.
Why would this be important to audiologists? It is well-established that auditory disorders such as hearing loss, tinnitus, misophonia, and hyperacusis can cause stress. Furthermore, anxiety, fatigue, and depression are common symptoms associated with auditory disorders that are left untreated.
The ability to examine cortisol levels in earwax could potentially help with counseling patients about the effects of untreated auditory disorders, as well as monitoring changes in stress levels during treatment.
When is earwax a problem?
In most cases, earwax is not a problem and is a normal part of the ear’s self-cleaning process. However, in some situations, it can become a problem and may require medical attention.
Here are some situations in which it can become a problem:
Impaction: When too much wax accumulates in the ear canal, it can become impacted and cause symptoms such as ear pain, hearing loss, and ringing in the ears. In severe cases, an impaction can lead to infection or damage to the ear canal or eardrum.
Blockage: When wax blocks the ear canal, it can cause symptoms such as ear pain, dizziness, ringing in the ears, and hearing loss. A blockage can occur if you push wax further into the ear canal while trying to clean your ears, or if you use objects such as cotton swabs or hairpins to clean your ears.
Earwax color or texture changes: If you notice a sudden change in the color or texture of your earwax, it may be a sign of an underlying ear infection or other medical condition.
If you are experiencing any of these symptoms or have concerns about your hearing, it is best to consult an audiologist. At Alabama Hearing, we can examine your ears and determine if any medical treatment is needed.
It’s important to avoid trying to remove wax yourself as it can push the wax deeper into the ear canal and cause further problems.
There’s More To Earwax That Meets The Ear
It is safe to say that there is more to wax than meets the ear! It not only protects the ear canal, but it may also be key to diagnosing chronic mental health conditions by providing an easy way to monitor a patient’s stress without the need for a blood test. It will be exciting to follow this line of research, with the hope that one day we can apply it toward the treatment of our patients.