The medical term is cerumen, but even doctors call is earwax. What was God thinking about when he gave us this awful stuff? Believe it or not — and I am just barely a believer — earwax does have something going for it. It protects the ear canal by trapping undesirables like dirt, bugs, and germs.
For the majority of people, earwax never causes a problem. Yet many of us have experienced the troubles that develop when wax accumulates and blocks the ear canal. This occurs most often in persons who have ear canals that are narrow, long, or curved; but it can even be a problem in those with canals that are wide, short, and straight. The most common symptom of impacted wax is loss of hearing; but earache, tinnitus (ringing in the ear), vertigo (a sense that things are moving or spinning), or even coughing are not uncommon.
There are dozens of remedies for build-up of earwax, strongly suggesting that nothing really works, or works well. Some remedies not only don’t work but are dangerous. The most important no-no is trying to dig out the wax with a Q-tip or other instrument. Using a sharp object like a matchstick, bobby pin, or paper clip is the ultimate no-no. The rule is that you are to insert nothing into your ear canal except your elbow. The safest and most effective way to remove impacted earwax is to soften it with a few drops of mineral oil or commercial softening drops [like Debrox], then allow the loosened wax to work its way out naturally. The drops may have to be used twice a day for several days. If symptoms persist, visit your primary care physician.
The best way to deal with recurrent earwax problems is to prevent the wax build-up rather than waiting until it is impacted and obstructing the canal. Whenever you bathe or shower, lather soapsuds outside the ears and then use your palms to press the suds into the ear canals. After a couple of minutes, wash the suds out by tilting your head into the shower stream (if you are in the bathtub, put your ears under water and use your palms to push water into the canals). That’s it — nothing else.
Dr. Michael Spilane (†) practiced at HealthPartners Specialty Center in St. Paul. Dr. Spilane passed away in May of 2019. This article first appeared in the December 2012 issue of Minnesota Good Age