As one of the body's many naturally-occurring protective substances, earwax, scientifically known as cerumen, is incredibly useful to our health and wellbeing. But what exactly is it? Earwax is an oily material that is produced by glands within the ear canal, designed to trap dust, to protect the ear canal skin lining and to reduce the likelihood of bacterial infection.
In the past, earwax has been considered a valuable substance, used as a salve for puncture wounds or even as a lip balm. Maintaining a healthy level of earwax is key - too little and you might succumb to bacterial infections, too much and it can compact, causing temporary hearing loss. If this is the case please call your local Amplifon clinic to book an appointment for ear wax removal.
Bloody ear wax may not mean an emergency as there are lots of blood vessels in the ear canal and it could just be a scratch.
However, it could also mean a bad infection. For people with a hole in the eardrum who have developed an infection, it could be a sign of blood passing through from behind the ear drum.
Bloody ear wax could have also been caused by trauma to the ear caused by activities like scuba diving - causing ruptured ear drums. If the problem persists or there is excessive blood, seek immediate medical advice.
Watery ear wax and/or discharge, might be a “swimmer’s ear” infection. Swimmer’s ear, or otitis externa, is an infection in the outer ear canal. Its name refers to the fact that it is commonly caused by water remaining in the ear after swimming. With that said, there are plenty of other risk factors including; skin allergies; over cleaning of the ear canal with cotton buds; and the use of earphones and hearing aids.
Whatever the cause, the warm, moist environment causes bacteria to grow, in turn causing an infection. As well as discharge, early symptoms may include itching in the ear canal, a slight redness in the ear and mild pain – which increases when the outer ear (called the pinna) or the tragus (the bump in front of your ear) is pushed or pulled. As the infection worsens, these symptoms will only get worse. This can then result in severe pain beyond the ear to your face and neck, progressing to swelling in the lymph nodes around your neck. Fevers can occur as well as complete blockages of the ear canal.
Grey sticky ear wax is discharge from an outer ear infection similar to swimmer’s ear.
Green ear wax discharge is usually a sign of a major ear infection – most often stemming from the middle ear. Seek medical advice as usually a course of antibiotics is needed to treat the infection.
Ordinary ear wax does have a unique smell but if it starts to smell fishy this is a sign of a bacterial infection. While if it starts to smell fungal then it’s most probably a fungal infection.
A brown colour, particularly a light brown colour is perfectly normal and nothing to worry about. A very dark brown ear wax, can be caused by dirt. But equally it might be caused by dry blood. If you suspect this is the case, please seek the advice of your doctor.
Black can be another normal colour of earwax. However, if this is normal for you, it could be caused by oxidisation when the wax makes contact with air or a combination of dirt and ear wax. If you suspect it’s blood, please seek medical help.
White, dry, and flaky
There’s usually nothing to worry about in this case. Some people just produce slightly different ear wax.
No ear wax
Everyone's different and this is likely nothing to worry about. You probably do produce ear wax but not enough to become visible in your outer ear.
Unfortunately, some people are predisposed to producing too much ear wax. To reduce your chances of developing problems relating to earwax, we highly recommend that you avoid putting objects directly into your ears, such as cotton buds or hair pins. Even if you are using these to remove excess wax, you can easily damage your ear canal or eardrum, lodging wax further inside your ear. Instead, you can use eardrops or spray as recommended by our expert Audiologists. This will liquify and loosen stubborn wax, allowing it to work its way out naturally.
If your problems persist, ask to see the nurse at your local GP surgery, where an examination or ear irrigation may be recommended. You can also contact you local Audiologist for any additional support to ensure that your hearing health is well cared for as well as viewing our range of hearing aids.
To discover what earwax is made of or to check the signs of excessive wax, read our causes, symptoms and treatments pages.