November 26, 2018
Since we were little, most of us have been told to never stick anything in your ear smaller than your elbow; and yet, how many of us still use cotton swabs like Q-TipsR to clean our ears?
Cerumen (the scientific name for earwax) is naturally produced by the body to help keep the ears healthy. It provides protection from foreign objects, it moisturizes the ear canal, and – believe it or not – it is designed to keep the ear clean! Cerumen is produced about halfway up the ear canal and as it is produced, the new wax pushes the older wax towards the front of the ear where it can be removed or fall out on its own. This conveyor belt-like system captures dust, dead skin cells, and anything else that has gotten stuck in the wax and carries it out of the ear canal. A few things can complicate this process and cause wax blockages, and many of us are guilty of doing at least one of them.
As mentioned above, cerumen is produced about halfway into the ear canal. When we use a cotton swab (or anything else small enough to fit into our ear), while we may get some wax out, we are also pushing some further into the ear canal. If it gets past the point of production, it is not caught up by the “conveyor belt” and does not work its way out of the ear. This causes the wax to sit there and build up over time, setting like cement, until it finally causes enough issues (discomfort, hearing loss, etcetera) to necessitate a trip to your audiologist or primary care physician to have it removed.
Another reason we should avoid putting anything into our ears is the chance we have of damaging something. Our ear canal is a very delicate part of the body, with very little padding between skin and bone, and the eardrum is much closer than most of us think. If we use small objects like cotton swabs or bobby pins to try to remove cerumen at home, we could scratch our ear canals, causing discomfort, pain, bleeding, or even infection. There is also the chance we could damage our eardrum on accident (we’ve seen the aftermath of some of these incidents).
If you know you produce a lot of wax, or just don’t want to have to deal with having it removed, there are a few things you can do at home that do not require putting any objects into your ear canal. First, know that cerumen is water soluble when it is first produced. If you let a little warm, soapy water run into your ear while you are rinsing your hair in the shower and then slowly tilt your head to let it run back out, this could help rinse out any wax that may be in there. Doing this every day could help keep your ears clean. There are also over-the-counter cerumen removal kits available at many drugstores and pharmacies if rinsing in the bath or shower isn’t for you.
Please note: Do not put any liquids into your ear canal if you have ever had a ruptured eardrum, ear surgery of any kind, or trauma to the ear. If there are any holes in your eardrum, this could allow liquids to reach your middle ear and cause infection. If you are not sure how much cerumen you produce or whether or not your eardrum is intact, visit your hearing healthcare provider and they will be able to recommend the best course of action for you.
Fun Random Fact: Hawkeye and The Blue Ear Marvel is one of the few comic companies that incorporates Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing (HoH) heroes! Not only is Clint Barton (Hawkeye) portrayed in many of the comics as having a hearing loss due to his heroic lifestyle, he is shown wearing a hearing aid and using sign language in several copies. In 2012, in response to a letter from a distraught mother whose four year old son refused to wear his “blue ear” hearing aid because “superheroes didn’t wear hearing aids,” Marvel comic writer Matt Fraction created a new HoH superhero called the Blue Ear as a sidekick for Hawkeye. Another lesser-known Marvel hero is Maya Lopez. She is entirely Deaf and communicates via sign language, and she is known as the heroine Echo and occasionally as the hero Ronin (wearing a disguise that hides her gender).