Cerumen (se-roo-men) or earwax is produced in your ears with protective, lubricating, and antibacterial properties. Earwax is formed in the outer one-third of the ear canal, but not in the deep part of the ear canal near the eardrum. The absence of earwax may result in dry, itchy ears.
Most of the time the ear canals are self-cleaning; that is, there is a slow and orderly migration of earwax and skin cells from the eardrum to the ear opening. Unfortunately, many people mistakenly believe that earwax should be routinely removed for personal hygiene. This is not true. In contrast, attempting to remove earwax with cotton-tipped swabs, bobby pins, or other probing devices can result in damage to the ear, including trauma, impaction of the earwax, or temporary hearing changes. These objects only push the wax in deeper, toward the eardrum, and can block the ear canal entirely. Individuals who frequently strip the ears of the protective wax by constant cleaning with Q-tips will often complain of annoyingly itchy ears because they do not have the protective wax in the canals.
Under usual circumstances, the ear canals should never have to be cleaned. Sometimes, however, the ears must be cleaned if enough earwax accumulates to cause symptoms or to prevent visualization of the ear canal or eardrum by your doctor. This condition is called cerumen impaction, and may cause one or more of the following symptoms:
- Earache, fullness in the ear, or a sensation the ear is plugged
- Partial hearing loss, which may be progressive
- Tinnitus, ringing, or noises in the ear
- Itching, odor, or discharge
If you or a child is experiencing any of these symptoms, you should seek the care of a medical professional to confirm that earwax is the cause. Do not attempt to remove the wax yourself. More info on home remedies and ear care.