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Have you heard?

Do you hear everything when you listen to your favourite radio station, watch a movie, talk to your dispatcher, and/or chat with a friend? No? If your hearing has gone downhill lately, maybe your ear canal is clogged.

All three sections of your ear – the outer, middle and inner ear – are important for hearing.

The three parts of your outer ear – the pinna, the acoustic meatus and the ear canal – simply and effectively direct external sounds internally towards your eardrum. The pinna (or auricle) is the visible skin flap on each side of your head; the external acoustic meatus is the hole that allows the sound to enter your head; and the ear canal ends at your eardrum.

The middle ear consists of your eardrum (tympanic membrane), which separates the ear canal from the internal tympanic cavity.

In the tympanic cavity, a chain of three small bones (ossicles) – the malleus, incus, and stapes vibrate as your eardrum vibrates. The middle ear carries and changes the acoustic energy from the sound waves in the air to fluid/membrane waves within the cochlea of the inner ear.

The inner ear is the most complex part of your ear. It consists of a bony labyrinth, a hollow cavity in the temporal bone of your skull with a system of passageways composed of two main parts: the cochlea and the vestibular system.

The cochlea, necessary for hearing, converts the sound pressure patterns received from the malleus, incus and stapes into electrochemical impulses and carries this sound information via the auditory nerve to your brain to be analyzed. The vestibular system is responsible for maintaining balance.

As you can imagine, your hearing system is delicate. Fortunately, your body has a built-in protection and maintenance system to keep it running smoothly; earwax is a vital component.

Hair follicles and glands produce earwax – a mixture of sweat, hair, skin, long-chain fatty acids, alcohols, squalene and debris, all held together by a waxy oil (cerumen) to keep the ear canal lubricated, supple and healthy. Earwax filters dust and protects the ear canal from infection, water, insects and fungal growth. Earwax’s appearance varies. It can be light to dark brown, or even orange. Older people produce less.

Normally, earwax drains on its own without causing problems. As the skin of your ear canal sheds, the wax is carried to the outer part of the ear canal through epithelial migration, which is stimulated by your jaw movement. Although earwax usually moves to the outer ear independently, earwax blockage still is the most common ear problem doctors see, affecting about 6% of people.

Since only the outer half of the ear canal produces earwax, earwax does not usually become lodged deep in the ear canal unless it gets pushed in. Cleaning ears with cotton swabs, bobby pins, or a finger can lead to a blockage; so can using earplugs or wearing hearing aids.

Impacted earwax may result in hearing loss, ringing in the ears (tinnitus), dizziness, earaches, vertigo and/or a feeling of fullness in the ears.

The following home treatment will probably resolve any earwax problems you are experiencing.  Begin by softening the wax. Use an eyedropper to introduce a few drops of baby oil, mineral oil, olive oil, hydrogen peroxide or glycerin into your ear canal a couple of times a day for up to five days.

After a few days (and when the wax has softened), use a rubber-bulb syringe to gently squirt warm (not hot) water into your ear canal. Tilt your head and gently pull your outer ear back to ensure the water fills the canal. Then, drain this water by tipping your head to the side. You may want to capture the draining liquid with a paper towel to see if you successfully dislodged the wax. Finish by gently drying your ear canal with a towel or a blow dryer set on low.

Professional help may occasionally be needed to diagnose and resolve an earwax buildup, in the following situations: your earwax has become tightly packed against the eardrum, and you have tried to remove it without success; you think you may have ruptured your eardrum; your ear is painful and/or develops drainage; you have a related fever; or you’ve had past ear surgery.

If you currently use earplugs to block the sound in your rig, consider using a headset instead to avoid pushing wax deeper into your ear canal.

If you frequently experience earwax blockages, your doctor may recommend the following wax-removal medication as a preventative measure: carbamide peroxide (Debrox, Murine Earwax Removal Drops). As a caution – these drops can irritate the sensitive skin of your eardrum and ear canal, so they should be used sparingly and only on the advice of a doctor.  Are you now thinking about taking better care of your ears? Glad to hear it! 

Karen Bowen is a professional health and nutrition consultant, and she can be reached at

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