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Ear wax, not a glamorous topic

But it can cause hearing loss

I last wrote about ear wax in April of 2016. I am returning to that topic today.

The reason underneath hearing loss has a lot to do with whether or not the hearing loss is permanent or can be reversed. One simple reason that is sometimes overlooked is excess buildup of wax that causes blockage in the ear canal.

Wax blockage is an obstruction of the ear canal with wax, also called cerumen. The ear canal is lined with hair follicles and glands that produce a waxy oil called cerumen. Ear wax protects the ear by trapping dirt, bacteria, microorganisms, and other foreign particles to prevent them from entering and damaging the ear.

Ear wax also helps protect the delicate skin of the ear canal from becoming irritated. The wax usually makes its way to the opening of the ear, where it falls out or is removed by washing. In some people, the glands produce more wax than can be easily removed from the ear. Also, as we age all parts of our bodies are not as elastic or supple as when we are young. Even ear wax in senior agers has less moisture content and cannot move out of the canal like it once did.

For some people, this extra wax may harden in the ear canal and block the ear. More commonly, wax may block the ear canal if you try to clean the ear and accidentally push wax deeper into the ear canal.

Wax blockage is one of the most common causes of hearing loss. Symptoms of excess ear wax buildup include: Earache, fullness in the ear or a sensation that the ear is plugged, noises in the ear (tinnitus), partial hearing loss, which may get worse. When wax blockage is removed a patient can received an increase in hearing between 5 and 10 decibels.

Years ago I was using my otoscope to look in the ear of a 98-year-old woman. She said she hoped her ears were clean. I told her that if I found any wax I would not tell her mother. We both had a good laugh and I commonly use that line in my practice to this day. We all remember our mothers telling us to make sure we washed our ears, but this kind of ear wax blockage has nothing to do with hygiene.

Most people can treat their ear wax themselves but there are a few basic things you should know.

If earwax blockage is a problem for you, ear, nose, and throat doctors recommend using mild treatments such as mineral oil, baby oil, glycerin, or commercial over the counter ear drops to soften earwax. If you know or suspect that you may have a hole in your eardrum, however, you should consult a doctor before using such products. A hole in the eardrum can result in hearing loss and fluid discharge.

Another method of removing wax is called irrigation. Use body-temperature water (cooler or warmer water may cause brief but severe dizziness or vertigo). With your head upright, straighten the ear canal by holding the outside ear and gently pulling upward. Use a syringe to gently direct a small stream of water against the ear canal wall next to the wax plug. Tip your head to allow the water to drain. You may need to repeat irrigation several times. Never irrigate the ear if the eardrum may not be intact.

Irrigation with a ruptured eardrum may cause ear infection or acoustic trauma. Do not irrigate the ear with a jet irrigator designed for cleaning teeth (such as a WaterPik) because the force of the irrigation may damage the eardrum. After the wax is removed, dry the ear thoroughly.

Candling, with lit tubes or cylinders in the ears, a common practice among some of our region, is discouraged by the United States Food and Drug Administration and should be because of the obvious danger to your body and property. If you cannot remove the wax plug or irrigation causes discomfort. Consult a health care provider, who may remove the wax by: repeating the irrigation attempts, suctioning the ear canal, or by using a small device called a curette.

After the wax blockage is removed if hearing ability is not improved then it is time to get a hearing test. If the loss is not due to wax it may be irreversible and need correction with hearing aids.

Hearing care is health care. If you have the symptoms of hearing loss let a professional help you find out why. The hearing professional will help you sort out the technology level to meet your need, your budget, and answer your hearing need questions.

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Jeffrey L. Bayliff, NBC-HIS, is the owner of Hear the Birds Hearing Aid Center, Lock Haven, Pa.

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