What Causes Earwax Buildup?


Woman getting ears checked.

It’s unlikely you have given a lot of thought to earwax, other than when cleaning your ears. You should know, however, exactly what it is, how it’s produced, and why you need it.

What is earwax?

Earwax is a thick mixture of debris, hair, skin, sweat, and a fluid called cerumen that’s secreted from the ceruminous glands in your outer ear canal – the area between your middle and outer ear. Earwax has a waxy consistency and can be orange, yellow, gray, or brown in color. The amount of earwax produced varies from person to person, but adults generally produce significantly less earwax than children. Adult earwax tends to be darker in color and harder than earwax produced by children.

Earwax moves very slowly through your outer ear canal to your ear opening. Once there, it will come out on its own or be removed when you bathe.

Why do you need earwax?

Earwax has multiple functions, including:

  • Acting as a barrier against outside irritants by trapping dirt, dust, and other substances before they travel further inside your ear.
  • Protecting and moisturizing the skin in your ear canal to prevent itchy, dry ears.
  • Warding off infections that could otherwise develop inside the ear canal.

Earwax blockages

It’s not necessary to remove earwax from your ears unless it becomes impacted, which is the most common problem with earwax. Impacted earwax may occur due to small or unusually shaped ear canals that prevent earwax from traveling to the end of your ear canal. An earwax blockage can also result from wax being forced deep into the ear canal by Q-tips or bobby pins. Additionally, individuals who wear earplugs or hearing aids are more likely to experience an impacted ear canal.

How excess earwax can impair hearing

If you have earwax blockages in your ears, it can create a slightly uncomfortable feeling in your ears and dull your hearing. A significant buildup of earwax can also produce tinnitus or ringing in your ears. Earwax blockages which are not properly addressed can result in a middle ear infection, perforated eardrum, or even permanent hearing loss due to acoustic trauma.

Remedies for impacted earwax

If you suspect you have an earwax blockage, it’s crucial you speak with your hearing specialist. Depending on the condition of your ears, you may be advised to remove the obstruction using either over-the-counter wax softening drops or a bulb syringe that will flush it away.

Want more information?

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