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Avoiding a Sticky Situation: The Facts on Wax
By Justyna Lorenc

Recently, I took a trip to Philadelphia to attend a workshop on earwax. Why, you may ask, would someone choose to spend a day and a half learning about unappealing wax that is secreted from our ears? As an Audiologist, it is inevitable to have a clump of this stuff staring me in the face at least once a day through an otoscope. My purpose in trekking to Philadelphia (aside from the sights) was to gather more information about wax removal from a group of earwax experts. I am setting up a Cerumen Management protocol in the Beltone New Glasgow hearing clinic where I work most of the week, and wanted to learn the best techniques on how to help my patients in the sticky business of earwax. I am often asked a variety of questions about wax, and thought this would be a great place to share some of the facts.

The Good Wax
Earwax, also known as cerumen, is a natural, protective substance that is good for you unless it accumulates. Earwax is often a yellow-coloured mixture from the sebaceous gland (a fatty/oily secretion) combined with dead skin cells and discharge from the sweat glands. Depending on the shape of the ear canal, wax will often work itself out, along with any unwanted substances such as insects, dust or bacteria. Also, wax serves as a natural lubricant, which helps our ears from feeling dry and itchy. If you have low wax production and struggle with dry ears, speak to your doctor about ear-specific lubricants that can help with this problem.

When Good Wax Goes Bad
Everybody has a different wax situation... Some people never think about it, and others, such as my husband, have had a lifetime struggle with wax. If the ear canals are narrow and long, it is more difficult for the wax to come out naturally. If there is anything worn in the canal, such as a hearing aid, this can contribute to having a wax build up. Hearing aid wearers will also know that earwax can cause the hearing aid to feedback, or not fit in the canal properly causing discomfort. Sometimes wax can cause a hearing loss by creating a solid plug in the ear canal, which can decrease hearing very significantly. Unfortunately, if there is a build up of wax over time, this can contribute to an infection lurking behind the wax near the eardrum. Other reasons for wax accumulation include aging (due to a decrease in the elasticity in the ear canal), and increase of hair growth in the canals can also trap wax. Blocked canals or ear infections can cause pain, inflammation, reduced hearing, ringing in the ear, and dizziness. When this happens, it is time to see your doctor.

Earwax Removal 101
Not all cerumen management is suitable for everyone. For example, if you have a history of perforated eardrums, syringing the ears using water is not the best method for you. If you have diabetes, a weak immune system, or are on blood thinners, this is also important information for considering the best technique for wax removal. Whichever technique is used, before having wax removed, it is helpful if the wax is softened for a few days prior to your wax removal appointment. I have heard different Ear Nose and Throat doctors suggest different softening agents, and it is best to check with your own doctor first to see what is most suitable for you. Most commonly, however, a natural oil can be helpful (such as mineral or almond oil) to soften the wax prior to wax removal.
Earwax is removed using a variety of techniques. The techniques can include instrumentation (using small tools to remove wax), suction systems (which act like tiny vacuums to suction the wax from the ear canals, after it is soft and loose), and irrigation (using water to flush out the wax, once it is soft and loose).

If you are concerned that you may have a hearing loss, or have additional questions about wax and its removal, please contact me and I will be happy to help you. 1-877-742-5141.

Justyna Lorenc is a certified Audiologist who joined Beltone in the fall of 2011 after graduating from the State University of New York in Buffalo. She works in New Glasgow and Truro, and also provides audiological services for Beltone in Amherst, Antigonish and Port Hawkesbury. She is an active member of Canadian and American Audiology Associations.

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