Cerumen, sometimes known as ear wax, is a naturally occurring substance secreted by our ear canals but frequently overlooked and subjected to harmful cleaning techniques. However, it is misunderstood and mistreated, putting our ears at risk. This article aims to educate readers about the importance of ear wax, the hazards of wrong cleaning, and the most important safety precautions for ear care. So let’s embark on this journey with Dr. Aditi Sinha, an ENT specialist and head and neck cancer surgeon practicing in Mumbai, to learn more about cerumen and our auditory well-being.
ROLE OF EAR WAX
Ear wax keeps the canal moisturized, preventing it from being dry.
The ear canal has a self-cleaning mechanism that moves the old wax from the ear canal to the outer part of the ear opening, where it can usually be wiped off with a Q-tip.
It traps dust and foreign particles, acting as a natural shield and preventing them from entering deeper into the ear.
It plays a major role in regulating pH balance within the ear canal, creating an environment to prevent bacterial and fungal growth.
When present in small quantities, it aids in sound conduction and enhances our ability to hear.
Putting your finger, mainly the fingernails to clean the ear wax, ballpen, pencils, safety pins, and car keys, deep into the ear can cause sudden hearing loss.
Q-tips are only used for cleaning the outer part of your ear and would rather not be pushed deep into the canal because we do not know the canal's depth, further causing ear drum perforation. Pushing ear wax deeper into the ear canal can result in wax impaction, causing discomfort, hearing loss, and infections.
With the help of unhygienic methods or tools, getting your ears cleaned by street vendors can cause infection, earache, pus, etc.
Using unsterilized Q-tips that have gathered dirt and dust can provide a ground for infection to develop if a part of the cotton gets stuck in the canal.
THE BEST WAY TO CARE FOR YOUR EAR
Don't use Q-tips, oil, water, shampoo, or any other kind of home remedy, and don't put anything inside your ear.
You can just dry your ear with a towel after you come from a bath. Just dry it from the outside. Don't put direct water inside.
If you're swimming, use a swimming cap and earplugs.
Instead of earphones that go deep into the ear canal, opt for headphones that sit outside the ears, reducing the risk of ear wax accumulation.
Refrain from using cotton buds or any sharp objects to clean your ears. These can push ear wax deeper into the ear canal.
Young people should reduce their exposure to loud sounds, avoid noise-cancellation headphones, and keep some distance between the ears and listening devices to prevent noise-induced hearing loss. Avoid noise-cancellation devices as they create a vacuum, increase volume, and create a blocked sensation in the ears.
Avoid tobacco chewing, alcohol consumption, and smoking, as they are leading causes of cancer, particularly head and neck cancer. Even if you've never used tobacco, understand the risks associated with it and don't assume you're immune to its harmful effects.
Consume a diet rich in antioxidants through raw fruits and vegetables to protect the ears.
Consider using hearing protection like earplugs or earmuffs when attending loud events or concerts to prevent sudden hearing loss.
Taking breaks between calls, using low incoming volume, and using speakerphone mode can help reduce the risk of hearing damage.
Cleaning one's ears using methods like ear candling or self-ear suction is not recommended by medical experts and reputable websites like WebMD. Patients in India may be cost-conscious and hesitant to pay for ear cleaning procedures by a doctor.
Uneducated patients may resort to risky and unprofessional methods like having roadside ear cleaners use sharp objects, which can lead to damage.
Various devices are available for at-home ear cleaning, including rotary wax brushes and self-suction kits. These methods are considered blind procedures and inherently carry risks. The ear and nose cavities are deep and dark, making it challenging to perform safe and effective cleaning without proper medical equipment and expertise.
Even if some wax is removed using these methods, it's difficult to ensure that all of it has been cleared. Using these methods without professional assessment can result in undetected damage or infections. Ear candling and similar practices lack scientific evidence and are generally considered unsafe and non-recommended worldwide.
HOW FREQUENTLY SHOULD WE GET AN ENT CHECK-UP?
Early hearing loss is becoming an epidemic, affecting even young individuals between the ages of 21 to 35. Regularly schedule hearing and eye tests as part of your annual health checkup, especially for young adults. A routine six-month check-up should be done for those above the age of 40 and below the age of 40 at least once a year before proceeding with a hearing test. An ENT consultation is necessary.
The presence of ear wax can give inaccurate readings during audiometry. They can safely remove excess ear wax if necessary. People above the age of 40 should consider annual audiometry tests to monitor their hearing, as hearing loss is linked to conditions like Alzheimer's and dementia. Sometimes small growths of early cancers are picked up only by examination.
Newborn screening for congenital hearing loss and deafness is crucial for babies in India.
Some people experience blocked ears and ear pain and may self-medicate with over-the-counter ear drops. They often assume the issue is earwax or dirt without proper examination. Earwax can dissolve and come out with the use of drops if that's the actual problem.
However, blockage and pain in the ear can be due to various other causes, such as infection, fungus, or boils. Using chemical-based drops without knowing the exact cause can worsen the condition and cause damage. Chemical drops like turpentine-based ones can lead to allergic reactions and inflammation.
The recommendation is to get the ear checked by a medical professional, such as a general practitioner or MBBS doctor, who can use an otoscope or torch to diagnose the issue. Only use drops prescribed by a doctor or those specifically for earwax after a proper diagnosis, rather than self-medicating.