Cerumen or earwax. We all have it, but what is it?

For most people earwax causes no problems, and keeping your ears clean and healthy is as simple as a wipe with a wet cloth. But sometimes people make a lot of earwax — it’s genetic — and too much can affect your hearing.

Posted Monday November 9, 2020

Earwax is made by small glands in the outer ear canal. It’s 20-50% fat and regulates the inner acidic barrier that protects your ears from infections, excessive moisture, dust and dirt.  If your ears are blocked by earwax, sound waves can’t get to your eardrums. Blocked ears also increase the chance of infections from moisture building up behind the wax and disrupting the protective acidic balance, which produces ideal conditions for bacteria and fungi.

Ear wax removal

Is earwax a problem for you? You can book an appointment to see our ear nurses, either Sady Katuszka at Dunedin or Mosgiel, or Carole Patterson at Invercargill, Winton, or Gore, by calling 0800 547 836 or booking online. Sady and Carole safely remove ear wax by micro-suction, and can advise you on ear hygiene.

What can cause earwax to build up?

Over-active earwax glands are not the only cause of excess wax in the ears. Here are some others:

  • Skin or bone infections, or unusual ear anatomy can cause narrow ear canals
  • As we age, our glands produce a drier earwax that doesn’t discharge as readily
  • Things we put in our ears (swabs, hairpins, cotton buds) compact and push wax into the canal
  • Hearing aid moulds and earphones/ear buds prevent wax from discharging.

How can you tell if things are not okay?

First of all, if you have sore, sticky, weepy ears see a doctor as soon as possible. You may have an infection and need your ears suctioned so antifungal or antibacterial drops can work.

In the absence of an infection, the signs of wax build up may include:

  • Earache, itching or irritation
  • A sense of fullness in the ear
  • Loss of hearing
  • Vertigo (dizziness)
  • Tinnitus (ringing in the ears)
  • A cough
  • Discharge from the ear
  • Jaw or face pain, or ear pain when flying.

So, if your ears are itchy and you are not hearing well, they probably need unblocking.

Is removing earwax with cotton buds (or hairpins…) safe?

No. Cotton buds interrupt and damage the self-cleansing process of the ear. They act as ramrods to push wax into your ear canal, and can puncture your eardrum. Your canal and eardrum are fragile and easily damaged by cotton buds. You’re also risking ear infections by “cleaning” out the good, protective earwax. So, don’t stick things in your ears.

A word about water in the ears

Water sport enthusiasts deserve a special mention as they risk damage to their ears. Cold, wet, windy conditions can cause abnormal bone growth in the ear canal. Wax and water can gather around these growths and cause blockages and infections. This condition, known as ‘surfer’s ear’, is progressive so it is important to make sure you have ear protection when out on the water.


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