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Common Ailments

Ear Wax

What is it?
Ear wax (cerumen) is an oily secretion formed by two types of glands in the ear canal. It is composed of fat and dead skin cells and is produced to trap debris that may enter the ear canal. An "impaction" is the accumulation of excessive ear wax.

What causes impaction?
Impaction is commonly the result of misguided efforts to remove ear wax. The use of cotton swabs, needles, bobby pins, etc. interferes with the ear's self-cleaning mechanism and can potentially scratch or puncture the skin. Such attempts to remove ear wax will usually only push it further down the ear canal. Over time, the accumulated wax will create an impaction.

Some people naturally develop impactions due to narrow or deformed ear canals or skin disease near the ear and scalp.

What are the symptoms?
Common symptoms of ear wax impaction are earache, hearing loss, or both. Frequently there is a sudden decrease in hearing following attempts to clean the ear or when water gets into the ear during swimming, bathing or showering. This could be a sign that wax has completely blocked the ear canal.

How is it treated?
Impacted ear wax needs to be removed by a health care professional who can "irrigate" the ear canal with water or wax- dissolving substances or use an ear curette (a special ear cleaning instrument).

What can you do?
If ear wax buildup is a recurrent problem, your health care provider may recommend that you apply a wax-dissolving solution at home:

- Lie on your left side. Using a bulb dropper, put a solution of equal parts hydrogen peroxide and lukewarm water into your ear canal every 15 minutes. Drain and rinse with water, repeat on other side. Perform this daily for 3-4 days if wax persists.
- Debrox Drops can be purchased without prescription. Use as directed.
- An occasional (i.e., once a month) rinsing of the ear canals with shampoo lather, followed by a clear water rinse, can be helpful. Do not use this if you have an earache or are otherwise ill.

NOTE: Never put anything into your ears unless you have been medically advised to do so.

Consult health care personnel:

- if you have hearing loss.
- if you have redness, pain or swelling of the ear canal or discharge from the ear.
- any time you are unsure about what to do.

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