Dr. Jonathan Kahn, Associate Chief Head and Neck Surgery and Medical Director of the Kaiser Hearing Aid Center in the Diablo Service Area at Kaiser Walnut Creek, is a first-time contributor to the Tympanic Times.
We’ve asked Dr. Kahn to give his two cents on wax! Ear wax is an evolutionary design to catch insects and keep them out of the middle and inner ear. Dr. Kahn elaborates on the subject for this week’s Ear Pic of the Week.
This is a photo of a 70 year old man with cerumen (ear-wax) impaction. Impacted ear wax can cause a type of decreased hearing that is called conductive hearing loss. This hearing loss will go away when the wax is removed. I usually remove ear wax under direct vision using a binocular ear microscope. I will use instruments such as small curettes (they look like tiny spoons), and small suctions. Most of the time, excess ear wax can be removed at home by the use of over the counter ear wax removal drops for several days and then gentle irrigation with warm water using a bulb type syringe. Kits containing the drops and syringe are available at all pharmacies. You should see a physician if hearing loss persists after using the drops, or if there is ear pain or drainage. Q-tips are actually a bad idea for cleaning the ears because the Q-tip will push most of the wax farther down the ear canal where it can get stuck. Please don’t use ear candles. Tests have shown that they don’t help and they can actually cause burns to the ear canal and ear drum. The brown residue left over from the candles is not ear wax, but instead is residue left over from the burning candle.
Most people’s ears are self cleaning. The action of chewing, combined with the migration of skin in the ear canal, pushes out excess wax that can then be easily removed from the ear opening by using a moist cloth.
In conclusion, ear wax is actually a good thing. It has antibiotic, anti-fungal and water repellant properties. People who clean their ears too frequently have very dry itchy ears and are more prone to having outer ear infections. Sometimes you can have too much of a good thing and have excess wax, but most of the time your ears will take care of themselves and don’t need any special care.