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 earwax is a sign of poor hygiene.

However, the reality is that earwax 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, earwax has antimicrobial properties that prevent the growth of certain bacteria and fungi, thus preventing external ear infections.

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 earwax 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.

It is safe to say that there is more to earwax than meets the ear! Earwax not only protects the ear canal, 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 of 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.

If you have any questions about earwax and how it could interfere with your hearing or would like to book a comprehensive hearing evaluation, please contact us at (256) 319 4327.

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Dr. Susan Sheehy

Dr. Sheehy earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in audiology at the University of Alabama before beginning her career as a clinical audiologist in Huntsville. In 2005, she received her doctorate in audiology from Salus University. Dr. Sheehy is one of a specialized subset of audiologists certified in tinnitus retraining therapy (TRT). By appointment from the governor, she has served as a member and chairperson of the Alabama Board of Examiners in Speech-Language Pathology and Audiology.
    Basic Hearing Test

    A basic hearing test begins with an air conduction test. You will be seated in a soundproof booth and single-use, foam earphones will be inserted into your ear canals. The Audiologist will ask you to push a button or raise your hand when you barely hear a series of beeps (tones) presented at various frequencies (pitches) to obtain your air conduction thresholds.

    To determine whether your hearing loss is a conductive (mechanical) loss, sensorineural (permanent) loss or combination of the two, we perform a bone conduction test.  

    For this test, a head band is place on the bone behind one of the ears to obtain your bone conduction thresholds. This process provides a different form of sound transmission using vibration, which bypasses the eardrum and the middle ear bones and directly stimulates the auditory nerve. When you hear the beeps/tones, you will push a button or raise your hand.

    If bone conduction thresholds are better than air conduction thresholds (through the foam inserts), you have a conductive hearing loss. This suggests a problem with the mechanical structures (moving parts) of the ears.

    Conductive hearing loss is often a medically treatable condition for which we will provide you with a referral to an Ear, Nose and Throat (ENT) physician. However, if bone and air conduction thresholds match, it indicates a sensorineural hearing loss (permanent), and the treatment will likely involve hearing aids.



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