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What Is Ear Wax, And How Do You Know If Yours Is Normal?

01/18/2016 12:45 EST | Updated 01/18/2016 12:59 EST

Runny noses and achy ears are oh-so-common at this time of year. But it's not just the cold weather than causes your ears to hurt — sometimes a build up of ear wax can be the cause of ear pain.

Ear wax, known in the medical world as cerumen, is a collection of secretions, skin, and hair that collects in the outer portion of the ear canal. While it may seem kind of gross, it protects, lubricates, and has antimicrobial properties, Dr. Safeena Kherani, otolaryngologist and associate professor at the University of Ottawa tells the Huffington Post Canada.

Ear wax is completely normal and natural, and it's even self-cleaning. But when your ears feel blocked up with goo, it can be hard to resist reaching for a cotton swab — even if doctors really recommend against it.

"Anything smaller [than your thumb] can inadvertently push the wax deeper, cause an abrasion leading to swimmer's ear, or even — drum-roll please — piercing your ear drum," says Kherani.

To make matters worse, Dr. Ron Lemckert, otolaryngologist and medical director of Cutis Cosmetic & Laser Centre says "[the] cotton fibres [of swabs] often get mixed in with the wax, forming a sticky obstructing plug that is more difficult to remove."

And don't even think about using an ear candle to get rid of all that build up.

"Candling, as it is referred to, simply does not work," says Lemckert. "Several scientifically valid studies have actually found increased debris and degree of blockage in the ear canal with this practice."

Still, too much ear wax can be a problem.

"If it completely plugs the ear canal, this can cause a conductive hearing loss, which is entirely corrected with cleaning. Also, if there is a large amount of cerumen and water becomes trapped behind it, this can then result in infection of the ear canal," Lemckert explains.

Unlike snot, the colour or texture of wax that comes out of your ears isn't sending you any secret signs. While your ear wax might be yellow, your partner's might be brown. Both are normal, but bright or clotted red can be a sign of bleeding.

Wax consistency is a little more telling. "[It] can again vary on the basis of individual genetics, but can also vary with certain disease processes. People with psoriasis will often have dry flaky wax that forms a plug in the ear canal. Individuals with eczema affecting the ear canal will often have sticky or moist cerumen," says Lemckert.

If you find you are having a hard time hearing, or if you are experiencing pain from ear wax build up, the American Academy of Otolaryngology suggests contacting a physician for eardrops, which can soften the wax — or ask an ENT (ear nose and throat) specialist to flush it out.

If you are prone to wax impact, schedule a routine preventative cleaning with your doctor every 6 to 12 months.

For more tips on dealing with ear wax, check out the infographic from the Cleveland Clinic below.

Click for full size.

ear wax chart

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