Anatomy And Physiology

Anatomy Physiology

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Please, say that again.
I didn't hear you.
What was that?

Saying these once in awhile is okay. But, if you're constantly asking people to repeat themselves you probably have a hearing problem. For some the problem may require a hearing aid, while others may just have a buildup of earwax.

Earwax is a natural fluid that is composed of secretions made by the ceruminous glands, hair, skin and sweat. Before jumping into the purpose of earwax here's a brief review of the ear's structure.

The ear can be divided into the external, middle and inner parts.

External ear is the visible part of the ear (pinna and lobule) that has an opening called the external auditory canal which leads to the eardrum (a membrane separating the external and middle ear)

Middle ear contains three bony structures called the malleus (hammer), incus (anvil) and stapes (stirrup) and they work to conduct sound from the eardrum to the inner ear

Inner ear is made up by the cochlear bone (hearing); three semicircular canals and a vestibule (balance)

Earwax or cerumen is produced in the external part of the ear and appears light to dark brown or orange in adults. Children produce more earwax than adults but it decreases with age. The color and texture is also different appearing lighter and softer, both qualities also change with age. Based on geographic location earwax is either a wet or dry type. Wet earwax is dominant and found in Africans and Caucasians. The dry type has been linked to Asians and Native Americans. Japanese researchers discovered an earwax gene and suggested that the difference in earwax type may be due to natural selection.

In a New York Times article, the researchers argued that earwax and sweating are correlated. They argued that Africans living in hotter climates sweat more and as a result have the gene for wet earwax. The Asian population endures colder temperatures and sweats less and consequently ended up with dry earwax. This argument is not widely accepted but it cracks opens the door to question if there is some additional role the two forms of earwax play.

We may not know everything about this waxy substance. But what we do know is that the at local drugstores seeing cotton swabs on the shelves remind us to clean our ears. So if we want to remove it why do we need earwax anyway?

Wax serves three main roles in the ear:

Earwax helps to trap dust and dirt in order to keep the ear canals clean. The ear is a self-cleaning structure. The wax with the trapped particles sits on top of skin. When the skin in the ear sheds the earwax becomes loose and moves to the outer part of the canal. Our jaw movements also contribute to the dislodgement of waxy debris from the ear canal as well. Eventually the wax drains outside the ear on its own.

The high lipid content of earwax contributes to the lubrication of the skin in the ear. This prevents itchiness and dryness within the ear canal.

Cerumen has antimicrobial properties such as lysozyme which breaks down bacterial cell walls. Earwax doesn't only kill bacteria, but antifungal effects have also been found as well.

Earwax is helpful in many ways. However, if it becomes impacted it can lead to problems. If a cotton swab, finger or some other item is used to clean the ear and accidently pushes in too deeply earwax will sit against the eardrum.

Signs of a compacted ear canal are hearing loss, a sense of your ear being clogged, tinnitus (ringing in the ear) or vertigo (dizziness).

Treating earwax compaction usually requires a trip to the same place you probably bought those cotton swabs. But, if there's a complete blockage seeing an ear, nose and throat specialist (ENT) is your best bet. Here's a quick rundown of what you can do if earwax becomes compacted.

1. Try an over the counter wax removal product which usually contains carbamyl peroxide or hydrogen peroxide.

2. Home remedies are available for those who prefer alternative approaches. Just add vinegar, water and peroxide in a 1:1:2 mixture. Allow it to warm up to body temperature and rinse the ear canal with the mixture to help soften wax. Drops of baby oil can be placed in the affected ear once a week to help soften the wax as well.

3. Ear Candling is a definite no! The practice involves inserting a tube into the ear and lighting the other end. The flame is suppose to create a vacuum system that will help pull out the wax through the tube. The problem is that the hot wax can leak back into the ear canal. Ouch!

Visiting your doctor is probably the first and best thing you should do to rule out any other potential problems that may be causing your symptoms. Earwax is helpful in keeping the ear canal clean and free from bacteria. You can help the process along with the gentle use of cotton swabs on the outside and opening of the ear. Remember ear wax is a self-cleaning process so do not push swabs or your finger into your ears will prevent compaction. So, instead of "I didn't hear you", you'll be saying "got it!"

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