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Earwax – Good

By Rod Moser, PA, PhDJanuary 6, 2006
From the WebMD Archives

People seem to be unusually obsessed with getting rid of earwax. True, earwax can be unsightly, even disgusting to look at, but under that yucky facade is a very beneficial substance. Earwax has an undeserved reputation of being bad or dirty and for centuries, people have tried to remove it using Victorian earwax spoons to bobby pins, and of course, Q-tips*. While traveling in Japan several years ago, I was handed a free sample of the most lethal-looking, eardrum-piercing, earwax shovels that I have ever seen. With the abundance of U.S. attorneys, I doubt you will see this device on store shelves here. (* The term “Q-tip” is a brand name for the most commonly-used cotton-tipped applicators. Since the proprietary name is more or less universal, I feel I can use it in a generic context)

For generations, parents have inspected their children for earwax. The visible presence of earwax somehow reflected adversely on hygiene. If the kids had earwax, then parents were not doing their jobs. Granted, having some brown…or yellow…or orange wax hanging out of a kid’s ear is not very appealing. Not only did parents scrub those dirty ears with washcloths and fingernails, but they tried to excavate the ear canal using cotton-tipped applicators – a practice that shoved and packed earwax deeper in the ear canal to the point of causing some significant hearing loss. When parents would complain that their children “just don’t listen”, they never once considered that they were contributory.

The body can produce some disgusting substances, like nasal mucous (that’s snot), toe-jam, bellybutton lint, eye boogers, dandruff, and pus and other bodily secretions. To many, earwax would be very high on this list. You shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, and you should judge earwax by its appearance. Why would evolution or the wisdom of our Creator allow for such a nasty substance?

We put wax on our cars. We wax fine furniture to protect it from water. When water hits the surface, it will just bead up and not penetrate the surface. The body creates wax in the ear canal for the same reason…to protect this sensitive skin lining from water. If you strip the wax out of the ear canal, you will leave the skin vulnerable to infection. Earwax is also acidic and bacteria do not thrive well in an acidic environment. Every summer, I treat hundreds of kids for swimmer’s ear (otitis externa), mostly because well-meaning parents are cleaning the protective wax out of the ears, leaving the ear canal constantly wet/damp from pool and shower water. If those kids had a bit more earwax, then a simple shake of the head will allow those beads of water to simply fall out. Parents buy Q-tips and leave them around to further encourage daily rituals of cleaning out your ears.

Short of a Twelve-Step Plan to reduce the addiction to Q-tips, education is my best defense. Spreading the word that earwax is good is part of my life’s mission, as sad as that sounds. You can keep wiping those noses and butts, and you can even wipe out excess earwax that emerges from the ear, but please…please…please STOP swabbing out the ear canal. Even the makers of Q-tips warn about this practice, but to no avail. The teachings and practices of our parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents go deeper.

Too much earwax can be a problem and result in conductive hearing loss. Assuming your eardrum is intact – not being previously punctured by a Q-tip — excess earwax can be safely removed by a gentle lavage of warm water. Like other waxes, earwax will melt with the increased heat of warm water. Of course, never put hot water in your ears. As a matter of fact, unless you want to experience vertigo and vomiting, never put cold water in your ears either.

When you read postings on WebMD’s Ear Disorder Board, you will find many Q-tip injuries. Last week, a 12 year old completely ruptured her eardrum while using a Q-tip when she accidentally bumped her elbow against a cabinet, shoving the Q-tip through her eardrum. Ouch. Fortunately, the body has remarkable healing powers to fix these things most of the time. Unintentional injuries occur every day. If you use Q-tips deep in your ear, this will happen to you, if it hasn’t happened already.

We must learn from the mistakes of others, since we do not have the time to make all of the mistakes ourselves. Ear wax is good. Leave it alone.

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