Earwax exists to help clean, lubricate, and protect your ear. It is usually soft and oily, a consistency that helps lubricate and trap unwanted debris. Hard, dry earwax, on the other hand, can sometimes cause ear and hearing problems. Dry earwax is more likely to build up in the ear canal and may require removal if it does not get removed naturally. If you have too much dry, hard earwax, these symptoms may arise and persist:
- Ear Infection
- Discomfort of the Ear
- Ear Canal Blockage
- Hearing Loss
If you experience these symptoms or if you have excess dry, hard earwax that is not naturally expelled from your ear, visit an audiologist to figure out the cause and receive recommendations for ways to address the problem.
Why Do People Have Earwax?
Ear wax, or cerumen, is produced by your ear to clean your ear. Ear wax is made in the outer ear canal where special glands produce it. It usually either falls out or is washed away in the normal routine of life.
Ear wax helps to clean, protect, and lubricate your ears in a natural way. These are the three most important reasons your ears make wax:
- Clean. Ear wax contains special chemicals that help to fight off infections. In fact, your ear wax has antibacterial properties to protect the sensitive skin in the ear canal.
- Protect. Your ear wax acts as a shield between your ears and the outside world. Dirt, sweat, or other objects try to enter your ear, but the ear wax traps these items before they can travel far enough to cause damage.
- Lubricate. If you did not have ear wax, your ears would be dry, flaky, and itchy all the time. Your ear wax acts as a natural lubricant that reaches the part of your skin that other natural lubricants cannot.
What Causes Flaky Earwax?
Usually flaky earwax is lighter in color and very dry to the touch. One of the main indicators that your earwax could be dry and flaky is your ancestry. Native Americans and those whose descendents came from East Asia more commonly have lighter and flakier earwax. It is also interesting to note that the gene that controls underarm odor seems to be the same gene that controls the type of earwax we have and what it smells like.
However, flaky earwax is not always tied to genetics and can sometimes be tied to a different health issue. Conditions like eczema and psoriasis can cause flaking inside the ear or flaky earwax. Fear and anxiety have also been tied to the production of flaky and lightly colored earwax just like those feelings can cause increased sweat under the arms. Finally, flaky earwax can also be a sign of an ear infection, so if your earwax becomes flaky suddenly it is a good idea to see an audiologist.
Wet vs Dry Earwax
Age and ancestry can both play a role in the composition of earwax. In general, older adults have drier earwax. Also, as mentioned above, people with Native American and East Asian descendants have a tendency to have drier, flakier earwax while caucasions and those with African descent tend to have wetter earwax.
In addition to age and genetics, health issues and hormonal changes can also play a role in the color and consistency of ear wax. As mentioned above, health conditions such as psoriasis and eczema can cause flaky skin inside your ear. They can also cause your ear wax to become flaky. Hormone fluctuations can do the same. As mentioned above, fear is shown to potentially change the color and consistency of ear wax due to a hormonal reaction taking place. Too much stress or other hormonal triggers have also been tied to dry earwax.
Do You Really Need To Remove Earwax?
Your ears do a good job of cleaning themselves without help, and most people produce just enough earwax to replace what is washed away in the shower or by other everyday activities. The one thing that almost all doctors can agree on is that you should refrain from putting anything inside your ear for any reason, including to clean it. Many people will use q-tips or other cleaners to try to remove excess ear wax. In most cases this accomplishes nothing more than pushing the wax closer to your eardrum and potentially causing more problems later. The bottom line is, if you are trying to clean your ears by putting things inside of them…Stop.
How To Safely Remove Dry Earwax
When dry earwax does not come out on its own, it too can get packed into the ear canal. If earwax gets packed down or impacted into the canal it will eventually cause a blockage. This may lead to hearing loss or other medical problems. There are many safe and simple ways to remove dry earwax using techniques in your own home, but if these techniques do not work you should see a medical professional immediately.
The first thing that you should try is to irrigate your ear. You can do this by simply soaking a cotton ball in either mineral water, baby oil, or sterile saline and then placing the cotton ball just inside the ear with no force. Lie on your side for about 15 minutes with your ear facing up and let the liquid begin to soften the earwax. After 15 minutes, fill a bulb syringe with lukewarm water and spray it into your ear canal. Repeat this a few times and most of the time your ear will be cleaned. If you are unable to clean your ear with this simple at-home step, you should see a medical professional to make sure the wax is removed correctly.
When To See A Doctor?
You should see your doctor right away when you notice a change in the amount, color, consistency, or dryness of your earwax, especially if you have loss of hearing or ear pain. There could be an underlying cause that only a doctor would be able to diagnose. If you have any of these three symptoms, you should go to a hospital immediately:
- Severe loss of balance or an inability to walk
- Persistent vomiting or high fever accompanied with ear pain
- Sudden loss of hearing
Also, if your earwax remains drier and flakier for an extended period of time, there is a good chance a deeper medical issue may be occurring. In this case, you should visit an audiologist immediately.
What Happens If Earwax Is Not Removed?
When you have an earwax buildup that is not removed, there are potential symptoms and complications that can arise. Some of those symptoms and complications include but are not limited to:
- Pain or earache
- A feeling of “fullness” in the affected ear
- Itchiness in the ear
- Decreased hearing or hearing loss
- Ringing in the ear (tinnitus)
- A discharge or odor coming from the ear
- An ear infection
Most of these symptoms will go away when the earwax is removed. Unfortunately, far too many people try to remove it on their own. When earwax builds up and becomes impacted, it becomes increasingly difficult to remove without the help of a doctor. If you experience any of the above symptoms,or if you notice an abnormal buildup of earwax, you should contact a doctor immediately.
Dealing With Dry Earwax: Do’s And Don’ts
If you are experiencing some wax buildup, but it is not too severe, there are a couple of ways that you can handle it on your own. Here are some “do’s” and “don’ts” when trying to address earwax. Keep these in mind so you avoid negatively affecting your hearing or balance.
- Try putting a few drops of baby oil in your ear and then wipe it away with a damp washcloth.
- Use an over-the-counter ear wax removal kit, and follow the instructions.
- Let your ears get wet in the shower or bath.
- Go to a doctor and let them decide how to remove the ear wax.
- Don’t ever use cotton swabs. Too many people use q-tips or other swabs and the result is they push the earwax closer to the middle ear and then the inner ear.
- Don’t use hydrogen peroxide. It will do the same thing as baby oil but the potential consequences are much worse.
- Don’t use your fingers.
- Don’t insert pencils, tweezers, gem clips, etc. to clean your ear.
- Don’t use any type of scraping tool or anything pointed.
- Don’t use ear candles.
- Don’t attempt to vacuum your own ear.
Age, ancestry, hormonal changes, and underlying health conditions are all factors that can affect the type of earwax you have. Dry, hard earwax is not necessarily a cause for concern if your earwax has been the same for your entire life. However, if there has been a drastic change in the way your earwax looks or feels, another issue could be occurring. Additionally, hard and dry earwax can be more difficult to remove if it becomes impacted. When dry earwax becomes a problem, there are some at-home remedies that can be effective. If after attempting the at-home remedies, an improvement is not observed, it is important to have a doctor check your ears so they can safely remove the wax and advise you on proper future care.