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.