Why do ears produce earwax?


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The health and hygiene of the ear have been one of the most debatable topics surrounding the human body. Some people argue in favor of maintaining cleanliness in the outer as well as inner portions of the ear is a necessity and some people support the practice of letting the ear be as it is. Like every coin has two sides, both the fronts present a logical and reasonable argument to back their agenda. The science, much like the people, is divided into this topic. While a conclusion may be reached at some point, we must understand why this debate even began – why do our ears even produce earwax?

Previously, there was a notion about the waxy substance in our ears from an external source – such as the accumulation of dust particles from the outside world. This encouraged people to routinely get rid of this ‘dirt’ using Q-tips or related tools. However, once it was established that the wax is produced by our ears and are not a result of contamination, the debate on its biological necessity was waged. While most people still choose to remove the earwax present on the external part of the ear, others believe the body would not produce something without there being a reason for it.


What is earwax?

Earwax is a common term used for the waxy layer present on the outer and inner ear. Scientifically, this substance is called CERUMEN and is produced as a result of the SEBACEOUS and CERUMENOUS glands present in the ear canal. Cerumen is rather a culmination of a variety of substances such as normal MICROFLORA, water, dead cells, and hair along with the secretions of the sebaceous and ceruminous glands. In the scientific community, earwax is considered a PROTECTIVE layer.

inside your ear

The ear canal is deeper than the ear that is externally observed. The ear canal secretes the cerumen, which then travels to the outer ear, thus layering the entire route. The secretions of the glands are LIPIDIC or FATTY in nature (which gives it the property of being waxy) and the proportion of the lipid in the cerumen determines its nature – dry or wet. Wet cerumen is presumed to have a higher portion of lipids while dry cerumen is said to have a low concentration of lipids. However, since its consistency is always waxy due to its lipidic nature, it repels water and is, therefore, HYDROPHOBIC in nature.


Why is the cerumen produced?

As mentioned before, the cerumen is now considered a protective coating. Cerumen forms a layer from the ear canal to the outer ear. Since it is hydrophobic, it repels and avoids accumulation of water, which can cause a blockage. The absence of water also inhibits the growth of PATHOGENS or other microorganisms and dust.

An appropriate accumulation of the cerumen can exhibit antifungal and antibacterial properties, thus dramatically reducing the chances of invasion of ETIOLOGICAL AGENTS (i.e., causative agents) of OTITIS MEDIA and OTITIS EXTERNA. The amount of cerumen produced in a person depends on their genetics – but too little or too much of it can both be detrimental to the individual.


Why do people choose to remove the cerumen?

Excess production of earwax is damaging to a person. While genetics is the sole determinant factor of the amount of earwax produced, other reasons factor into it. Accumulation of earwax is a consequence of improper cleaning techniques as well as COGNITIVE IMPAIRMENT. Improper cleaning of the outer ear is facilitated by using Q-tips or any relatively sharp object to extract the cerumen. Instead, the person tends to push back the cerumen and cause blockages. These blockages can lead to a temporary hearing loss.

The migration of the cerumen from the ear canal to the outer ear is restricted due to earplugs, causing it to lodge midway and cause a blockage. If such a case is to concur with severe complications, professional help must be considered. Other than these reasons, a person may simply have a physiological disadvantage which is facilitating the blockage – the shape of the ear canal, excess SKIN SLOUGHING (which can contribute to the accumulation of earwax by mixing with it) or defects in the bones in the nearby areas.

The consequences of the accumulation of earwax can range from mild symptoms to those leading up to hearing impairment. EAR-ACHE and reduced hearing are the first symptoms of such a condition and can escalate to dizziness, itchiness, and susceptibility to infections. Symptoms such as VERTIGO (a spinning sensation triggered due to sudden movement of the head) or TINNITUS (a sensation of ears ringing) may also be experienced due to excessive cerumen.

clean ear

Why do people choose to not remove the cerumen?

While an excess of anything is mostly bad, many people tend to go overboard with cleaning their ears, leading to further complications. As it is said, everything in moderation is good. However, some people tend to not clean the earwax due to its biological existence. There is sound logic behind this choice as well. At the baseline, the ear has a mechanism to SELFCLEAN.

Recent discoveries have revealed that the migration of the earwax to the outer ear is for the sole purpose of it getting disposed of. While talking, the movement of the jaw causes a vibration in the facial bones and the earwax from the outer ear falls out. In the elderly, this system tends to fail and cause blockages – called CERUMENOSIS – however, the popular cleaning techniques may impart more harm than good.

Using Q-tips, cotton swabs or bobby pins can have varied reactions to the outer ear. Firstly, the cleaning may backfire and instead, contribute to the accumulation of the cerumen. Secondly, lodging it into the deeper parts of the ear can cause damage to the cells there or even adversely affect the eardrum. The inner parts of the ear are much more sensitive than the outer ear and damage to these can cause mild pain in the ears.

The pros of letting the earwax outweigh the cons (except in the case of cerumenosis). The absence of earwax opens the ears up to infections and other bacteria. Lastly, the presence of earwax is a sign of a healthy ear. Like how the production of a strong acid in our stomach (acids are generally bad for our body) is crucial for us to sustain our bodies, the production of the cerumen by the ear is a sign of its normal functioning.

So, what should a person do?

A person must, under their discretion, make decisions about the maintenance of their ears. However, a wise decision regarding the same would be being present in the middle-ground. If one feels that the amount of cerumen being produced in their ear may cause blockages, they may use a cotton swab dipped in mineral oil to clean the outer ear. The mineral oil will soften the earwax and it will naturally fall off.

There are ways to avoid the accumulation of earwax – by reducing the duration of wearing earphones, by ensuring nothing blocks the outer ear and ensuring there is proper ventilation. If there is a considerable amount of accumulation, most people turn to ‘therapeutic’ ways of getting rid of the cerumen. However, one cannot ascertain the authenticity or longevity of these relatively expensive techniques like EAR CANDLING.

clean ears

In severe cases and cerumenosis, professional help is required. Irritation or itching, coupled with the difficulty in hearing, are indications that a doctor must be consulted. The professionals are trained to only remove the excess cerumen and not the entire layer – which cannot be ensured at the therapeutic spas. Hence, professional aid is always better than turning to abstract practices.

Our bodies are well capable of taking care of themselves. Although the reasons for all the things happening in our bodies have not been discovered, it is safe to assume it all happens for our general welfare. With a little bit of our conscious aid, our bodies can remain in their prime. We must also do our research and gather knowledge about the way our bodies work instead of conforming to fancier methods.

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