Ear wax removal: To clean or not to clean

Aren’t we always quick to reach out for a cotton ear bud to remove ear wax, the yellowish, waxy material which keeps building up over time? Inserting cotton swabs, hair pins and other such tools into your ears may be harmful. According to guidelines from the American Academy of Otolaryngology/Head and Neck Surgery Foundation, the body produces earwax, also known as cerumen, to provide protection to your ear canal. Prevention of ear wax may benefit some people, but it’s not something everyone needs.

So, if you are searching ways for how to remove ear wax, the right question to ask would actually be “should it be cleaned at all?”, suggests Dr Shruti Manjunath, Consultant ENT specialist and Allergist, Apollo Clinic, Indiranagar, Bengaluru.

If you want to know why, the doctor says it’s first important to understand the ear structure.

Ear wax gets accumulated in babies as well as adults. Image courtesy: Shutterstock

Know your ear well

The ear can be divided into three parts

1. Outer ear
The outer ear includes;
* Pinna is the outer most visible part of the ear and has a helical shape with various grooves.
* External auditory canal begins at the outer visible ear hole and runs up to the ear drum/tympanic membrane.

2. Middle ear
The middle ear is the next compartment that lies on the other side of the ear drum. It has three of the smallest bones in the body – malleus, incus and stapes that help in conducting the soundwaves into the inner ear.

3. Inner ear
The inner ear has the cochlea that is responsible for hearing and the vestibular system (vestibule and semi-circular canals) that helps with maintaining balance.

ear health
Keep your ear healthy. Image courtesy: Shutterstock

How is ear wax formed?

Dr Manjunath explains, “The outer external auditory canal is lined with skin which contain ceruminous glands that produce the oily substance, the ear wax! This wax is produced in the outer one-third portion of the ear canal and forms a layer over the skin.”

The ear wax plays a role. It protects the ears from dust particles and micro-organisms by trapping them. Wax regularly gets expelled out of the ear canal aided by actions like chewing and settles in the grooves of the pinna which are the parts that you can clean after a shower.

Ear wax removal at home can lead to these side effects

Stripping this layer of wax with the Q-tips or other instruments like cotton earbuds can lead to certain situations, the expert adds.

1. Increases infection

The ear canal is made susceptible to bacterial and fungal infections. The cotton fibres of the Q-tips could also be a source of fungal spores.

2. Injury of ear canal

The ear canal is not a straight canal. Blind insertion of the Q-tips carries a risk of injuring the walls of the canal and the ear drum.

3. Pushes ear wax deeper

The cotton buds can further push the wax deeper inside as the size of the buds does not give much space for the wax to come out of the ear canal. This can lead to accumulation of wax.

Also read: This is the right way to clean a baby’s eyes, nose and ears

earbuds
Avoid earbuds! Image courtesy: Shutterstock

How to clean ear wax?

Well, Q-tips or a soft cotton cloth can be used to clean the grooves on the pinna/auricle only where the wax would have settled. However, there a few cases where wax tends to accumulate. This happens in small children as their ear canals are narrow, and in adults who have the tendency to produce more wax.

In such cases, a visit to your local ENT specialist (at least once in 6 months) for a cleaning is required where the wax will be removed with either a sterilized probe or syringing or under microscopic visualization.

As a last word, Dr Manjunath adds, “Wax is not harmful. Wax is certainly not dirtying your ears. Just let it be. Wax is good for the ears! Unless it accumulates and clogs your ears. Then, meet an ENT specialist.”