Why do we have earwax?

person putting cotton swab in ear

It's tempting, but a cotton swab is not the safe way to clean your ear. (Photo: eyepark/Shutterstock)

Earwax — not truly wax, but a greasy buildup called cerumen — is actually a protectant for our ears. It serves a very important purpose: to lubricate and protect the ear from outside intruders, such as dirt and debris. Without earwax, our ears would not only itch, but our inner ear and our brain would be at risk. Imagine earwax as the castle guards, if you will.

Once earwax has served its purpose, it travels from the inner ear to the outer ear and eventually falls out on its own. You also might need to remove it if you see it sitting there. But stay away from ear swabs — they can actually pack in the earwax tighter instead of taking it out, or worse, puncture your eardrum.

Instead, to practice good earwax hygiene at home, clean the skin outside the ear with a damp cloth. Do nothing more. As any kindergarten teacher will tell you: Don’t stick anything in your ear smaller than your elbow.

If you're experiencing symptoms such as an ear infection, hearing loss, feeling as though your ear is plugged up, or even ear pain, you might have excessive earwax buildup. In this case, you can try an over-the-counter earwax removal solution. The Mayo Clinic also suggests putting a few drops of mineral oil, baby oil or hydrogen peroxide into the ear to soften the earwax. After a day or two, use a bulb syringe to gently squirt a little warm water into your ear canal. Then tip your head to the side to let everything drain out.

If you’ve tried these solutions and are still feeling discomfort, or if you think you may have a more serious buildup, see your doctor. He or she will use a device called an otoscope to look deep inside your ear to see if buildup is blocking your ear canal. Your doctor may use suction or a small plastic spoon called a curette to remove the wax, according to WebMD.

Also know that you're not alone. Excessive earwax sends about 12 million people to see care workers every year, including 8 million who require earwax removal, according to the American Academy of Otolaryngology – Head and Neck Surgery Foundation. The problem affects one in 10 children, one in 20 adults, and more than one-third of the elderly.

Because buildup can cause dizziness or vertigo, this can increase the risk of falling for seniors.

“In elderly patients, [earwax buildup is] fairly common,” Dr. Seth Schwartz, a Seattle otolaryngologist, told Kaiser Health . “It seems like such a basic thing, but it’s one of the most common reasons people present for hearing-related problems.”

Editor's note: This story was originally published in April 2013 and has been updated with new information.

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