Bodily functions and bodily fluids: The earwax post

February 11, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
Feb. 11, 2014

Cerumen, old friend. We meet again.

I didn’t actually say that to myself last month when my doctor looked into my ears, but I may as well have. I certainly cringed internally.

Here’s a quick recap. I got sick in late January, and after trying to tough it out for a few days, I made an appointment to see my physician. After checking both ears with that funny pointed scope that doctors use, she told me that there was some wax buildup in both my ear canals, especially the left one, which needed a cleaning.

I’ve been told this kind of thing many times over the years. The human body naturally produces wax, technically known as cerumen; it traps dirt and protects the eardrums, in part by slowing the growth of bacteria in the ear canals. If everything is working smoothly, older wax will migrate to the outer ear, dry up, harden and fall out.

Unfortunately, sometimes wax builds up without coming out. Earwax accumulation can cause discomfort and occlude hearing.

I didn’t immediately follow up on my doctor’s suggestion to clean my ear. After a few days, though, I was feeling better — more energetic and ready to tackle challenges, and also better prepared to handle disappointments.

Now, doctors and medical websites insist that people should never stick anything in their ears in an attempt to remove blockages. Probing the ear canal with a Q-tip (or worse, a sharp object) sometimes clears the passage, but the motion can also have the opposite effect by packing the wax up close against the eardrum. Even worse, people who stick objects in their ears risk puncturing their eardrums, causing severe pain and damage.

When I decided to try to clean out my ears, I took to my bed with a towel, a small bottle of ear drops and my smartphone. (To be honest, the smartphone is rarely far from my hand.) I lay down, turned my head to one side, propped up my head on a pillow, put my phone within easy reading range, and dispensed some drops into my ear.

This is the standard first step for cleaning out one’s ear. The next steps are straightforward, at least in theory: Wait five or so minutes, then tilt one’s head to the side and let gravity drain the ear while cleaning up excess fluid with a cloth.

It’s a pretty simple procedure. It’s also, as I’ve found over the years, ineffective. Simply put, doing this always seems to leave my ears obstructed — granted, with fluid instead of more or less solid wax, but still blocked. Sometimes, the ears end up worse than when I started.

And that’s exactly what happened when I tried following the doctor’s advice.

I — cautiously! cautiously! — probed my ears with Q-tip after Q-tip. The swabs brought out warm, gooey earwax, but both ears remained obstructed. Both ears, which had previously felt fine, wound up feeling (and sounding) worse after I put in the drops. This remained the case after I went through a second and third go-rounds with the ear drops and Q-tips.

When I finished wiping off wax and drops that had oozed down both sides of my face and onto the vanity and disposed of the soiled Q-tips, I hopped into the shower. I turned both ears directly into the stream of the shower nozzle. This, alas, provided the dubious relief it usually does, which is to say: none at all.

The ear that felt worse was my right ear. I found this ironic, as my doctor had seen more wax in my left ear canal.

There are a few problems with having blocked ear canals. One is that it makes it harder to hear; sounds are fuzzier and softer and just harder to make out. Another is that it leaves me with the sensation of being trapped in my own head. It also makes me feel slightly dizzy and fatigued. Given that I’d just started feeling better from a cold that had included a few touches of vertigo, this left me none too pleased.

My first ear-drop-and-Q-tip session took place at the end of January. Additional cleaning efforts over the next few days yielded no improvement. I took a break and did some traveling; a session in early February cleared out my left ear, but my right ear remains clogged. It’s now almost mid-February.

I think that the next time my doctor spots wax buildup in my ears, I’ll ask her to clean them out at the office. The procedure involves directing a stream of high-pressure water into the ear. The doctor, the patient or an assistant can hold a sort of crescent-shaped pan beneath the ear to catch outflow. (This is not necessarily safe to do at home, by the way. Medical websites note that some flow intensifiers, such as dental irrigation devices, are too strong and can cause injuries.)

I’ve had this done a couple of times. One session was rather horrific. The doctor spent what seemed like an eternity streaming water into one ear in an attempt to extract a stubborn blockage. Ultimately, he dislodged a huge mass of wax that seemed to be about half the size of my balled fist. I couldn’t comprehend how all that junk had accumulated in my ear, let alone how it had come out in one piece.

Earwax, man. Can you dig it?

No. No, you really can’t.

At least, I can’t — and you really shouldn’t.


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