By Damon Raskin, M.D. | Special to the Palisadian-Post
Q: What’s the deal with earwax? Is it safe to remove with a candle or should we leave it alone?
I will try to not be EARitating in my answer to your question. In fact, earwax is a great topic around Halloween … right up there with other gross medical topics like toe jam and nose boogers!
Earwax is more formally known by the medical term cerumen, and it is made from dead skin cells, hair and the secretions by the sebaceous glands of the outer ear canal. Earwax does indeed have an important purpose. It protects the skin of the ear canal, assists in cleaning and lubrication, and also provides protection against bacteria, fungi, insects and water.
So, why do so many of us want to remove it?
Normally, earwax moves toward the opening of the ear and falls out or is washed away. Movement of the jaw helps the ears’ natural cleaning process.
I have to repeat again that earwax in moderation is a good thing! By trapping dust and other foreign particles, it prevents these invaders from filtering through and damaging the eardrum. The problem occurs when some people make too much wax.
Excessive earwax (or impacted cerumen) can be a major concern, as it may impede the passage of sound in the ear canal and can cause hearing loss, pain in the ear, itchiness and even dizziness.
I have had numerous patients over the years think that they had ear infections or were going deaf, only to be perfectly fine after getting the earwax removed in my office.
The problems can only get compounded when people try to remove the wax themselves. Most of the time they just push the wax deeper into the ear canal and can damage the eardrum when they do this. I have often found broke-off tips of cotton swabs in patients’ ear canals, which can be breeding grounds for bacterial infections.
As far as self-treating excessive earwax with ear candling, I was flabbergasted when I first heard about this from patients. During this procedure, a patient lights one end of a 10-inch candle on fire and sticks the other end in his or her ear canal. The “candle assistant” keeps this in place for 15 minutes.
The idea is that this will soften the wax and get it to come out easier. Unfortunately, this practice is not approved by the FDA and not recommended by medical professionals!
There are numerous risks to ear candling, including burning of the face or ear, setting a house on fire, and blocking the eardrum with candlewax. Candlewax can be difficult to remove from the ear canal and often necessitates specialized equipment in an emergency room or ear specialist’s office.
If excess wax is indeed a problem, it is best to see your primary care physician or ear specialist. Earwax softeners may be used, followed by a gentle irrigation with warm water.
It is best to leave this procedure to the professionals, as dizziness can occur if the water is too cold or too warm. Other complications from irrigation could include inflammation of the canal, infection or perforation of the eardrum.
Bottom line, a little earwax is good for you and too much may cause some problems. But don’t take matters into your own hands or ears. That would be EARresponsible.