Earwax can be gooey and gross, and it is not the most scintillating of conversational topics. We all have it, but who wants to talk about it? We do! So get an earful of these earwax facts.
What is earwax made of?
Earwax (scientific name cerumen) is a combination of sebum, sloughed-off skin cells from inside of the ear, and secretions from the cerumenous glands in the outer ear canal.
Do you know your earwax type?
Earwax comes in two types – wet and dry. The kind you have depends on genetics. People of North-eastern Asian descent, especially those from China or Korea, tend to have dry ear wax, while the earwax of people from other regions is wet.
It’s kind of gross. But you can learn a lot about what’s going on inside your body by paying attention to the stuff it produces.
The color and consistency of your pee, poop, saliva, and mucus can signal potential health issues—or reassure you that all’s well. The same is true of the stuff that oozes out of your ears, though experts say your earwax isn’t as informative as a lot of people assume.
If you would describe yourself as white or black, your earwax is probably yellow and sticky. If you are East Asian or Native American, it’s likely to be dry and white.
And for those with the yellow kind, I hate to break it to you, but your earwax stinks.
Don’t take it personally. Smelly earwax is just another of the genetic quirks we inherit as part of one ethnic group or another. In new tests of earwax in Caucasian and East Asian men, yellow earwax from Caucasians gave off stronger odors than the dry, white kind.
How earwax is like nose hair
Earwax is another of our body’s mundane, under-appreciated, yet totally amazing protective devices. Like eyelashes and nose hair, earwax shields our body from outside invaders, including dust, bacteria, and other micro-organisms that can get in and irritate, inflame, or infect.
How earwax is like tears
Earwax lubricates our ears, in much the same way as tears lubricate our eyes. Without adequate amounts of earwax, our ears would feel dry and itchy.
Earwax cleans up after itself
Thanks to earwax, our ears are self-cleaning. Whenever you move your jaw or chew, you help keep earwax churning slowly from the eardrum to the ear opening, where it will then either dry up, flake off, or fall out.
Your ears are “no trespassing” zones
Since our ears are self-cleaning, we should never, ever stick anything in them! That includes those cotton-tipped swabs that seem perfectly designed to fit inside the narrow ear canal. Keep these swabs and any other objects – including your fingers – out of your ears. When you put something in your ear – to scratch an itch or to attempt to remove wax – you risk pushing wax further into the ear, where it can become blocked.
Listen up: No candles!
In an attempt to clear excess wax, some people have tried ear candling. In ear candling, a person lies on his or her side while a long cone-shaped candle is nestled just inside of the ear canal. The candle is then set aflame and, it is claimed, the warmth will soften and suction out the wax. Ear candling does not have any proven benefit and can cause burns, wax blockage, and punctured eardrum.
“Our previous research has shown that underarm odors can convey a great deal of information about an individual, including personal identity, gender, sexual orientation, and health status,” study researcher George Preti, Ph.D., an organic chemist at Monell, said in a statement. “We think it possible that earwax may contain similar information.”
Indeed, researchers noted that past findings have shown that people of East Asian descent, as well as people of Native American descent, possess a form of a gene that makes them have dry-type earwax — versus wet, yellow-brown ear wax — and less underarm body odor.
For the study, published online in the Journal of Chromatography B, researchers examined the earwax from eight healthy Caucasian men and eight healthy East Asian men. They heated the collected earwax in vials for 30 minutes so that the volatile organic compounds would be released from the earwax, which is known scientifically as cerumen. Then, researchers used a device to collect the compounds from the vials before using gas chromatography-mass spectrometry to analyze the compounds.
Twelve different volatile organic compounds were identified in all the study participants’ earwax. But the levels of these compounds differed between the Caucasian men and the East Asian men: The Caucasian men had higher levels of 11 of the 12 compounds, compared with the East Asian men.
How earwax affects hearing
Blocked earwax is the most common cause of hearing loss. This can happen if wax is pushed back toward the eardrum or if the ears produce more earwax than is needed. Symptoms of impacted earwax include earache, feeling of fullness in the ear, a sensation that the ear is plugged, and tinnitus or ringing in the ear. Your ear may also itch, have an odour, or emit a discharge.
DIY ear cleaning how-to
If you suspect that your ears are blocked by excess earwax, you can seek a doctor’s assistance in clearing it. Or if your ears are otherwise healthy (free of tubes or eardrum perforations), you can safely attempt to clear excess wax from your ears on your own.
First you will need to soften the wax. A couple of times a day for a few days, apply several drops of baby oil, mineral oil, glycerine, hydrogen peroxide, or commercially available products into your ear canal.
Once softened, the wax can be washed out. To do this, tilt your head to the point where your ear canal is straight and use a rubber-bulb syringe to gently squirt water into the ear canal. Tip your head to let the water drain.
Dry your ear with a towel or a hair dryer set on the cool setting.
People with diabetes or weakened immune systems should consult their doctor before attempting this at home.
When to see a doctor
Make an appointment with your doctor if home treatments do not help or if your hearing has diminished. If you use hearing aids or are prone to blockage, you might choose to set up regular preventive ear-cleaning appointments with your doctor.
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