About ear wax

What is ear wax?

Ear wax is a naturally occurring substance which forms when layers of dead skin migrating out of the ear canal combine with the oily secretions of the hair follicles and secretions of the sweat glands.

Ear wax plays an important part in keeping the ear canal clean and healthy; it helps trap and carry debris out of the canal, inhibits bacterial and fungal growth, and helps maintain normal moisture levels.

Why do we get a build-up of wax in our ears?

Ear wax usually falls out of the ear canal spontaneously when we talk or chew, which causes the ear canal to flex. However, sometimes this self cleaning mechanism breaks down, leading to an accumulation of ear wax within the ear canal. Some people simply produce more wax than the ear can easily eject, whilst others may produce overly dry or overly sticky wax. An ear wax build-up may also be likely to occur in those who have certain skin conditions such as eczema or psoriasis, or excessive hair in the ear canal.

The insertion of hearing aids or ear plugs will also restrict the natural migration of the ear wax out of the ear canal. Attempts to clean the ear with a cotton bud or something similar, is not recommended as this could push the ear wax deeper into the canal, causing wax impaction, and potentially harming the sensitive tissues of the ear.

What are the issues associated with a build-up of ear wax?

A build-up of ear wax within the ear canal can cause temporary hearing loss and discomfort, and can also contribute to infection, tinnitus (ringing or buzzing in the ears), and vertigo (feeling dizzy and sick). Excessive ear wax can also prevent clinical examination of the ear, delaying investigations and management of ear related conditions. For example, GPs cannot examine the outer ear and audiologists cannot fit hearing aids, if the ear canal is blocked with wax.