A child wants to know: why all the ear wax?

Dear Dr. Mom,

My six-year-old son asked me a question today, and I told him I knew the perfect place to find the answer: Why do our ears make ear wax, and how do they make it?  He is on his second set of ear tubes, and we have been told by a couple of doctors that wow, this kid has a lot of wax in his ears.  I swear he takes a bath every day, and I myself clean his ears out, but is there anything else I could do to cut down on the wax in his ears?

Thanks!

—Karin

 

Your son sounds very smart and he asks a very good question; one parents ask me almost on a daily basis. So, let’s get to it.

What’s the purpose of ear wax?

Ear wax (aka cerumen) actually has a very important job. It protects the ear canal from dirt, bugs, water…you name it. It’s thick, waxy nature provides a barrier to water so it decreases the likelihood of water getting trapped in there and setting up shop for infections. It traps dust, dirt, and foreign objects from reaching the ear drum and actually contains bacteria fighting chemicals. Amazing stuff right?

So, why are so many of us kind of grossed out by it? I suppose it’s sticky, yellow color lends itself to this type of reaction. Not to mention the fact that another helpful property of cerumen is that it’s continuously made by the cells within the ear canal as needed, and then extruded when it starts to build up.

The fact that your son seems to make a lot of it is likely beneficial to him. Our bodies are pretty smart that way. Particularly since your son has ear tubes and the outside world has direct access (so to speak) to his inner ear, that wax is working overtime to increase that natural barrier.

The only reason your child’s doctor needs to clean it is to get a clear view of his ear drum.

DOs and DON’Ts of ear cleaning and wax:
  • DON’T use Q-Tips: these popular ear cleaning devices can actually do more harm than good. Not only does it remove the natural protective layer of ear wax, it can potentially damage the ear canal and/or ear drum if inserted too far. In addition, parents may inadvertently push the ear wax further back into the canal, thus blocking the ear and causing “cerumen impaction”.
  • DO gently clean around the outer ear during bath or shower time with a washcloth. Gently. No need to stick your fingers in there to “clean it out”.
  • DO let nature do its thing. Ear wax will naturally find its way out on its own, without us needing to help it along.
  • DO let your child’s doctor know if your child is having trouble hearing or has ear pain.
  • DON’T attempt to clean out your child’s ears yourself.

Too much wax?

Some people do make more ear wax than others. We are all different and our ear wax follows suit. Usually this extra wax doesn’t cause problems and isn’t a cause for concern. However, some children may be prone to cerumen impaction and may need periodic ear irrigation or ear drops to help soften the ear wax. But again, I wouldn’t try to clean them out yourself. These procedures and drops aren’t without some risk and cleaning out the ears in this way does have the potential for causing damage to the ear canal and leaving them prone to infection.

So, as far as your son’s ear wax goes…tell him how amazing his body is! Producing enough ear wax to protect his inner ear. Aside from some gentle cleaning around them at bath or shower time, there’s no need to worry about that wax. In fact, be grateful for it. And tell him thank you for such an awesome and smart question.

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3 Responses to A child wants to know: why all the ear wax?
  1. Rebekah C
    October 6, 2012 | 7:10 am

    My son’s ears are like that. He just…ew, lol. But as far as I can tell, he’s never had a problem with his ears as a result.

  2. Christina
    October 8, 2012 | 2:05 am

    Excllent.. a favourite audi saying “Never put anything smaller than your elbow in your ear” :)

  3. What's the Purpose of Ear Wax?
    October 11, 2012 | 11:28 am

    [...] least once a day, pediatrician Melissa Arca answers one little boy’s question for us all.  Read more at Confessions of a Dr. Mom Filed Under: Children's Health, In The News Tagged With: ear, Melissa Arca, purpose, wax, [...]

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