Ever itch your ear only to find a sticky, yellow glob at the end of your finger? Not a pretty sight — but hey, it happens.
Earwax is a completely normal part of your body. It’s a mixture of dead skin cells from your ear canal and secretions from your ear’s sweat glands and sebaceous (or lubricating) glands, Ksenia Aaron, MD, an ear, nose and throat (ENT) specialist at the Cleveland Clinic, tells LIVESTRONG.com
And it’s there for a reason: Earwax defends against invaders that enter your body through your ear. “There’s a slightly acidic property to it, so it’s actually protective against bacteria and other microbes that might get into your ear canal,” Dr. Aaron says.
Earwax is also hydrophobic, which means it repels unwelcome water in your ear canal to prevent issues like infection, itching and muffled hearing, according to the Mayo Clinic.
That said, it’s possible to have too much of a good thing, says Zan Mra, MD, an ENT specialist at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. Earwax buildup can cause earaches and discomfort, trouble hearing, dizziness and even a cough, according to the Mayo Clinic.
That’s why your body has its own mechanism to get rid of it: When you chew or speak, your jaw moves and helps ease earwax out, Dr. Mra says.
But if you notice you suddenly have much more earwax than usual, tackling the source of the overload can help prevent further buildup. To help, here are six reasons why you may have so much earwax:
1. Ear Infection
Your earwax problem may not be wax at all — it might actually be an ear infection, Yin Ren, MD, PhD, an ENT specialist at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, tells LIVESTRONG.com.
It can be easy to confuse the two because they can both cause difficulty hearing and the sensation of something stuck in your ear, Dr. Ren says.
How do you tell the difference? Well, “earwax is almost always painless, while an ear infection hurts and produces foul-smelling drainage,” he says. Infections also tend to come on suddenly due to bacteria or a virus.
Fix it: See your doctor — either your primary care provider or an ENT — to get your ears checked out. Dr. Ren says infections are typically easy to diagnose and treat with oral or ear drop antibiotics.
2. Irritation From Ear Buds or Hearing Aids
If you love to use your ear buds while you run or talk on the phone, they may be contributing to your excessive earwax. “[Wearing ear buds] causes a breakdown of skin cells in the ear, which can lead to a buildup of earwax,” Dr. Ren says.
They can also push wax back into your ear canal, leading to blockages and hearing problems, Dr. Ren says.
Wearing ear buds often or for long periods of time can add to the problem. “If you keep ear buds in your ears for hours, they block earwax from naturally draining,” Dr. Mra says.
Even worse, that extra earwax can trap dirt and bacteria on your ear buds in your ear, which can sometimes lead to infection.
Hearing aids can present many of the same problems. “When the mold is not well-fitted, it moves around in the ear, causing irritation,” Dr. Ren says.
Fix it: The best solution is to use over-ear headphones instead of in-ear ones, Dr. Mra says. If you can’t bear to part with your buds, he recommends limiting use to only an hour or two a day. He also suggests wiping down ear buds or hearing aids with peroxide before and after each use.
If you still notice buildup despite these precautions, an over-the-counter earwax removal drop like Debrox ($5.60 from Amazon.com) can help soften and loosen earwax so it drains more easily, Dr. Mra says.
If you wear hearing aids, see your audiologist to get the fit checked.
Though Q-tips may be your preferred method of ear cleaning, they’re actually another cause of excessive earwax. “They irritate your ear canal, which in turn stimulates the glands in your ears to produce more secretions,” Dr. Aaron says.
Q-tips can also push earwax deeper into your ear canal. This can make it harder to hear and thus create the illusion of too much earwax, she says.
Fix it: Toss the Q-tips.
If they have become part of your hygiene routine, Dr. Aaron recommends placing a few drops of mineral or baby oil in your ear before bed instead. (You can use a cotton ball to prevent it from seeping onto your pillow as your sleep.) “The oil will help soften any earwax that is dry and contributing to buildup,” she says.
4. Ear Hair
Ear hair may be another reason why you have so much earwax because it can get in the way of drainage. “Men are more prone to earwax because they often have hair in their ears, which blocks its natural excretion,” Dr. Aaron says.
Fix it: “Earwax is totally normal, so if it doesn’t bother [you], then there’s no need to do anything,” she says.
But if it does, you can always remove ear hair with an over-the-counter trimmer, like Panasonic’s Men’s Ear and Nose Hair Trimmer ($19.99 from Amazon.com). Just never wax or shave ear hair, Dr. Aaron cautions, as you don’t want to burn or nick the sensitive ear canal.
5. Chlorinated Water Buildup
Remember how earwax repels water? That only works so well.
“Swimming in a chlorinated pool can irritate your ear canal, which stimulates the production of more earwax to protect it,” Dr. Aaron says.
Fix it: You may be tempted to pop in ear plugs when you hit the pool, but don’t: Those are also irritants, Dr. Aaron says.
Instead, she recommends drying your ears after swimming. Set your hair dryer to low and hold it about six inches from your ears for a few minutes to reduce moisture from chlorinated water, she says.
6. Residue From Bathing Products
If you notice your ear canal is itchy and irritated in addition to waxy, then your shampoo or soap may be the culprit, especially if you’ve switched it recently, Dr. Ren says.
Fix it: Switch back to your original bathing products (provided they weren’t irritating) or try a mild shampoo with no added fragrance, like Neutrogena Gentle & Soft Healthy Scalp Shampoo ( $11.99 from Amazon.com). You should also take extra care to rinse your ears when you bathe so there’s no soapy residue, he says.
Photo credit: Charday Penn/E+/GettyImages
Article written by Hallie Levine for Livestrong.com