What do you know about earwax?

CC BY 2.0 Alberto

Most of the time, we can forget all about earwax, but sometimes it can give us a glimpse into the health and wellbeing of our inner ear.

Before you start brushing off earwax as one of those icky bodily discharges whose existence you’d rather deny, stop for a moment. Just like all the other ‘gross’ substances that ooze out of our human bodies, such as feces, mucus, urine, and saliva, earwax serves an important purpose and might be trying to tell you something.

According to an article in Rodale’s Organic Life, titled “6 Things Your Earwax Says About You,” earwax observation can lead to better understanding of what’s going on inside your ear canal, although it’s not as informative as other bodily discharges. Made in the outer ear canal, the area between the outer ear you see and the middle ear, earwax performs three basic tasks – moisturizing the skin of the ear canal and keeping it from itching, fighting off potential infections with chemicals it contains, and acting as a shield against the outer world, trapping dirt, dust, and whatever else might be trying to make its way inside.

So, what can be observed and learned about your earwax?

1. Is your earwax watery or greenish?

Have you been sweating profusely? Sweat can run down your face into your ear and dilute the wax that’s there. If you haven’t been sweating and watery wax is greenish or dark yellow, that could be indicative of an ear infection.

2. Is your earwax is sticky or dry?

Apparently the consistency of earwax is related to cultural heritage. People of Asian descent have dry earwax, while people with African and Caucasian backgrounds have wet or sticky earwax. If it’s looking flaky, that could just be a sign that you’re getting older, as glands tend to dry out with age.

3. Is your earwax smelly?

Once again, race plays a role. Caucasians are more likely to have odorous earwax, while East Asians tend to have odor-free. You might have an ear infection or damage in the middle part of your ear, in which case you may also experience problems with balance, ringing in the ears, and the feeling that your ear is blocked. Make an appointment with your doctor.

4. Do you have an excess of earwax?

Are you stressed? Interestingly, stress and other strong emotional responses, such as fear, can increase earwax production. According to the Huffington Post, “The glands in the ear that help to secrete wax are a class of glands called the apocrine glands, which are also responsible for your smelliest sweat.”

5. Has it stopped coming out?

Earwax is supposed to discharge imperceptibly, getting washed away when you’re in the shower. If it’s not coming out on its own, it could be building up inside the canal in a rare condition called ‘keratitis obturans.’ When this happens, the wax becomes a hard plug that must be removed, either through softening with oil or using gentle pressure from a jet of warm water.

6. Do you feel earwax coming out?

If you can feel pressure or a ticklish trickle whenever earwax comes out your ear canal, this could be indicative of another type of blockage called ‘cholesteatoma.’ This is a “kind of cyst-like [skin] structure that leads to debris from the ear filling up the ear canal.”

In most cases, however, earwax can largely be ignored. It should take care of itself and never require poking or prodding with cotton swabs, fingernails, or anything else. In fact, using cotton swabs can worsen problems inside your ear by compacting the wax further and causing blockages. Nor should you ever use an ‘ear candle’ to melt stubborn wax, as they can lead to burns, further blockages, and perforations in the ear drum. Stick with warm water in the shower on a regular basis, and you should be fine.

What do you know about earwax?
Most of the time, we can forget all about earwax, but sometimes it can give us a glimpse into the health and wellbeing of our inner ear.

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