Cerumen: Definition, Function & Impaction Removal

Instructor: Kiley Griffin
This lesson should tell you everything you've ever wanted to know about ear wax, also known as cerumen. You should learn what cerumen is, where it is located, as well as what problems it may cause.

Trouble Hearing

Bob is an older gentleman with a hearing aid in his right ear. Lately, he's noticed that he is having a hard time hearing out of both of his ears. He changed the battery of his hearing aid to make sure it is working properly, but it didn't help. He has also had some pain in the left ear, and occasionally he feels dizzy.

Bob is worried that perhaps his hearing is getting worse, so he makes an appointment with his doctor. The doctor examines Bob's ears and finds a build up of cerumen in them. Bob is not sure what this means---should he be worried?

Trouble Hearing
Man Ear

What is Cerumen?

Cerumen is the medical term for ear wax. It is made by the body in the outer ear canal as a way to protect and clean the ear. The yellowish waxy substance is a combination of lubricants and dry tissue from the body.

What is the Function of Cerumen?

The ear canal is the passage that leads to the ear drum. Behind the ear drum are small bones that assist with hearing by converting vibrations to sounds. Cerumen is found in the ear canal in front of the ear drum.

Cerumen can provide protection from bacteria, fungus, insects and water. By shedding dead tissue and lubricating the canal, the ear is cleaning itself to ensure vibrations can pass easily through to be transformed into sound. The cerumen acts as a stopping point for bacteria and fungus, causing them to get stuck in the sticky wax. These harmful substances then leave the body rather than penetrating further into the ear canal and causing damage.

Anatomy of the Ear
Ear Anatomy

What Happens when Cerumen is Impacted?

It is completely normal to have cerumen in the ear. Sometimes, however, it can build up and become impacted. Impacted cerumen gets built up in the ear canal when the body is not properly ridding itself of the wax and it gets stuck.

Common signs of impacted cerumen include a feeling of fullness in the ear, pain, ringing and dizziness. If the cerumen is not removed and continues to build up, it can cause more hearing loss. The wax builds up in front of the ear drum and greatly effects the sound coming into the ear. Vibrations are not able to travel through to the ear drum, making hearing difficult.

Both the elderly and individuals with hearing aids are more likely to have impacted cerumen. Individuals who use cotton tipped swabs also have a higher risk as they are pushing the wax further into the ear.

How is Cerumen Removed?

Our bodies are programmed so that moving the jaw helps move cerumen out of the ear. Sometimes wax will build up or be seen on the outer ear, and this is easily washed away. Impacted cerumen can result in hearing loss, which is why it is important to have it removed appropriately. Cotton tipped swabs are never recommended to remove cerumen. Not only do they push wax deeper into the canal, but if pushed too far into the ear canal they can cause damage to the ear drum.

To safely remove ear wax, doctors will often prescribe an over the counter wax softener. A few drops are placed in the ear, and the cerumen will loosen and drain on its own. This can also be done in a doctor's office, especially if they are trying to examine an ear and the wax is impeding the view of the ear drum.

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