Why Does My Earwax Build Up So Much?

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Photo: Three Lions/Getty Images

I took one of those mail-away DNA tests a little while ago, and it was a letdown. One interesting thing I learned is that I have the “wet kind” of earwax. Did you know there are two kinds?

Well, now you do. There’s dry wax and wet wax. If you’ve ever stuck a finger in your ear you already know what kind you’re working with, so you don’t need Big DNA to convince you that you need to shell out for lab tests you can perform yourself. There, I just saved you $199. What I cannot save you from, unfortunately (no matter what kind you have), is having so much of it gunk up your ears and make you feel all stuffed and off-balance and wondering “what’s that ringing?” or “am I dying?” It’s a very bad feeling! But it happens to the best of us. Dr. Maura Cosetti, director of the Cochlear Implant Center at New York Eye and Ear Infirmary of Mount Sinai, said earwax build-up is extremely common, affecting “1 in 10 children, 1 in 20 adults, and up to one-third of the geriatric population.”

Like a vagina, your ears are supposed to be self-cleaning (I think this is where the similarities between ears and vaginas end, but I am not a doctor). “In most individuals, the ear actually cleans itself, and cerumen [that’s doctor for earwax] mixed with exfoliated skin migrates out of the ear canal with jaw movement [like speaking or chewing],” Dr. Cosetti said. When this self-cleaning mechanism gets disrupted, she explained, earwax builds up and eventually blocks the ear canal.

This sounds extremely mundane, but for the intrepid lunatics among us, it can feel major. (To wit: there are over 1.2 million Google search results for “dangerous earwax.”) Why do so many of us think this common issue is a health risk? Dr. Cosetti said it might be because the symptoms of earwax build-up can mimic those of more urgent issues like infections, fluid, or unusual growths in the ear. “It is important to get checked by a doctor if you are experiencing any of those symptoms,” she said, adding that a medical professional is your best bet for a truly thorough ear cleaning.

Want to deal with your bunged-up ears in the privacy of your home? Fine, but in ear care as in see-through mesh crop tops, don’t pull a Horvath. “In general, sticking objects into the ear canal — such as Q-tips, bobby pins, car keys … we’ve seen it all — has the opposite effect of cleaning the ear,” said Dr. Cosetti. “It can actually push the wax farther into the ear canal, impede the natural cleaning mechanism, and lead to worsening buildup.” Don’t be a hero! And don’t go overboard: The right amount of wax provides an important lubricating, protective function in your ears. “There are many over-the-counter ear drops that are available and safe to soften earwax,” Dr. Cosetti said. “It is also possible to use mineral oil or diluted hydrogen peroxide. Typically, individuals prone to wax buildup will undergo routine ear cleaning by a physician to ensure safe and complete removal and open ear canals.” Sounds nice.

LIKELIHOOD OF YOU DYING: Lower than the percentage of my genetic background not being in Northwestern Europe (-2 percent). (That kit was a waste.)

I Have So Much Earwax I Can’t Hear!