Cerumen, also known as earwax, is an important part of normal ear health. The yellowish substance is secreted by glands in the skin of the outer portion of the ear canal. It helps lubricate and protect the skin of the ear canal, repels water (which can cause infection if it remains in the ear), traps and helps remove dust and small particles that enter the ear, and inhibits growth of bacteria and fungus. In a normal ear, the cerumen will slowly work its way out of the ear canal, and you may see small amounts come out from time to time. In the vast majority of cases, no specific cleaning measures are needed for the ear, except for maybe wiping the outside of the ear with a damp cloth when bathing to remove dirt and debris from this area. Objects such as Q-tips, hair pins, keys, etc. should never be inserted into the ear canal. In addition to risking injury to the ear, this practice works against the ear’s natural self-cleaning measures by pushing material deeper into the ear canal.
In some ears, especially in ears that have been probed with Q-tips or other objects, cerumen builds up and becomes impacted deep in the ear canal. This can cause hearing loss, ringing in the ears, mild off-balance, pain, and even infection. When this occurs, often removal of the cerumen by a medical professional is the best solution. ENT physicians use delicate tools under a microscope to remove the cerumen without causing injury to the ear canal or eardrum.