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What is Cerumen?

Deanna Baranyi
Updated May 17, 2024
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Cerumen or earwax is a naturally occurring substance found in the human ear. Although there are subtle differences between the terms cerumen and earwax, they are used interchangeably. Specifically, when the ceruminous glands in the external ear secrete oils, the result is cerumen. In the alternative, if the secreted oils combine with tiny hairs and epithelial cells, it is called earwax. The wax is helpful because it lines the ear canal and protects the inner ear from bacteria and traps dirt and other particles that could permanently damage the fragile parts of the inner ear.

Most people have a small amount of cerumen in their ear at all times. As new earwax forms, it typically rises to the start of the ear canal. As a result, the old earwax falls out when a person chews food or talks. It can also be washed away during a shower or bath. As long as it is washed away or otherwise removed, cerumen doesn't normally result in health-related issues.

In some cases, cerumen can accumulate and block the ear canal. This may result in extreme dizziness, pain inside the ear, loss of hearing, and a ringing noise or tinnitus. Earwax blockage usually occurs when the wax continuously grows inside the ear. It does not fall out and becomes too solid to wash out. In addition, when a person stuffs cotton or other materials inside her ears in an attempt to clear out the ears, it can cause the wax to be pushed deeper and increase the likelihood of blockage.

Although most people can go through life without giving the cerumen in their ears a second thought, some people have to seek medical attention to safely remove the wax. By asking a doctor to remove the wax, the fragile eardrum will be protected. Doctors have the correct tools, such as a cerumen spoon, and can remove the wax without causing hearing loss. Many people attempt to use cotton swabs, such as Q-Tips®. These can also damage the eardrum and bones of the ear, especially if it the user pokes the ear too roughly.

There are home remedies, such as candling, to remove the earwax. In candling, a hollow candle is lit and placed over the ear canal. The thought is that the wax from the candle will draw the earwax out of the ear. Medical research has shown that this technique is both dangerous and does not work. Consequently, most medical professionals do not recommend it.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Deanna Baranyi
By Deanna Baranyi
Deanna Baranyi, a freelance writer and editor with a passion for the written word, brings a diverse skill set to her work. With degrees in relevant fields and a keen ability to understand and connect with target audiences, she crafts compelling copy, articles, and content that inform and engage readers.
Discussion Comments
By EdRick — On Oct 04, 2011

I thought my son was just exaggerating when he complained of not being able to hear out of one ear, but I took him to the doctor anyway. I thought he might have an ear infection.

Boy was I wrong! He had impacted earwax, actually in both ears. A nurse cleaned them out with a special syringe. She held a basin under his ear and shot water into it. Little bits of wax started to break off, but then all of a sudden, this huge glob fell into the water! It was quite spectacular.

They actually couldn't tell if he had an infection or not after that, because his ears were naturally quite red from the water! But they said to just wait a few days and bring him back if he had any more pain or symptoms. He didn't - it was only the wax!

Deanna Baranyi
Deanna Baranyi
Deanna Baranyi, a freelance writer and editor with a passion for the written word, brings a diverse skill set to her...
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