Where ears are concerned, however, many people believe that regular cleaning is necessary to prevent a gradual build-up of wax inside the ear canal that can inhibit hearing, as well as cause a variety of unpleasant symptoms including pain, tinnitus and dizziness.
Historically, earwax has been utilised for many purposes – in the pigments used by medieval scribes to illustrate manuscripts, for example, or as a lip balm in the United States in the 1830s – but nowadays most people simply regard the natural accumulation of the sticky yellow substance as a minor inconvenience and, somewhat erroneously, as a sign of poor personal hygiene.
In fact, earwax – medically known as cerumen – is a harmless and beneficial substance that helps to protect the ear from infection and discomfort. It also boasts vital antibacterial and antifungal properties that are important for aural health. Produced in the outer ear canal between the ear opening and the middle ear, wax helps to lubricate the narrow passageway and prevents the delicate skin from becoming dry and itchy, as well as stopping dirt and debris from entering the inner ear where it could settle and cause infection. With a regular chewing motion when eating, old earwax is gradually dislodged and encouraged to move to the ear opening where it loosens and falls out of its own accord.
Many people believe that it is necessary to clean the ear canals manually, with cotton wool buds a common choice of equipment owing to their narrow shape and soft ends which can be easily swished around the ear to capture and remove earwax. Other objects sometimes used for the purpose include tweezers, straws, pencils and paper clips – yes really and not recommended!
However, it is entirely unnecessary to clean the inside of the ear, partly due to the risk of causing serious damage to the inner ear, but also because earwax is the body’s natural way of helping to keep the ear healthy and hygienic. In fact, most doctors advise that cotton wool buds, or other small objects, should never be inserted into the ear under any circumstances, even if the intention is only to ensure that the ear is kept clean.
The most serious consequence of cleaning your ears, even with a soft cotton wool bud, is the perforation of the eardrum. The eardrum – the tympanic membrane – is a very delicate layer of tissue that separates the inner ear from the outer ear and is easily torn or punctured, even if a seemingly harmless cotton wool bud is used with the utmost care. A perforated eardrum, which is painful and results in temporary hearing loss, can take weeks to heal, but complications, such as infection and tinnitus, are not uncommon.
Alternatively, using an object to try to remove earwax can actually make the accumulation of cerumen worse. Impacting the earwax in the ear canal and against the eardrum will only make it more difficult for old cerumen to be discharged naturally, leading to a build-up that has to be removed by a medical specialist.
If the outer ear becomes dirty, then a warm, damp cloth is all that is needed to remove the debris and to ensure that your ears look their best. In the unlikely event that a build-up of wax inside the ear causes discomfort or hearing loss, it is important to seek medical advice so that the problem may be correctly treated. Your health care plan can put you in touch with a medical professional promptly and at a time to suit.
Above all, attempting to remove the earwax yourself or to soften it by pouring oils into your ear are not recommended as this is likely to make the problem worse or to cause damage to your eardrum.