This substance is a natural secretion from the sebaceous and apocrine glands to capture dust and dirt, as well as repelling water from the tympanic membrane.
Put simply, the functions of earwax are to clean and lubricate the ear canal and protect it from bacteria, fungus, and insects.
The high concentration of lipids in the sebum produced by the sebaceous glands lubricates the ear and acts as a water repellent and a natural soothing agent.
The external ear canal is self-cleaning, thanks to the movement of the jaw (while you chew, talk, and even yawn) that causes the earwax to move towards the outside.
Despite this self-cleaning mechanism, a lot of people tend to suffer from earwax accumulation and impaction because of excessive production or reduced elimination efficacy.
Impaction does not necessarily mean that the ear canal is completely obstructed.
How frequent is earwax impaction?
➡Roland et al. Otolaryngology – Head and Neck Surgery (2008) 139, S1-S21
Cerumen impaction is present in:
Approximately 10 % of children
5 % of healthy adults
Estimates suggest that between 19 % and 65 % of patients over 65 years old have cerumen impaction and that elderly patients in nursing homes are likely at the upper end of this spectrum.
Some reports suggest that up to 36 % of patients with intellectual disabilities suffer from earwax impaction. The reasons for this increased prevalence are not clear,
however, anatomical differences in the structure of the canal (associated with Down syndrome, for example), poor hygiene or excessive cerumen production may be contributing factors.➡Roland et al. Otolaryngology – Head and Neck Surgery (2008) 139, S1-S21
1. Roland et al. Otolaryngology – Head and Neck Surgery (2008) 139, S1-S21
Causes of excessive production:
- Irritation due to foreign objects (hearing aids and earplugs).
- Over-cleaning of the ear.
- Chemical irritation: hairspray, gel, shampoo, constant moisture due to lack of drying, etc.
Causes of reduced elimination efficacy:
- Anatomical deformity of the ear canal.
- Increased number of hairs in the ear canal.
- Physical barriers to natural ear wax elimination (e.g. cotton buds, hearing aids, earplugs, etc.).
While often harmless, blockage of the ear canal by earwax can lead to a host of symptoms.
(ringing sound in the ears)
Sensation of fullness
In addition, earwax impaction can make diagnostic assessment more difficult, as it prevents your doctor or nurse from seeing the external ear canal and/or tympanic membrane correctly.