Jane M. Emanuel, M.D.
Boys Town Ear, Nose & Throat Institute
Ear wax is actually stuff that should be in your ears, it's a protective substance. There are special glands in your ear canal, the outer one third of it actually, that secrete ear wax.
It's protective, it's anti-bacterial, it is a lubricant but it repels water. Basically, it's a substance that your body knows it should have there to protect your ear canals from invaders, water, bacteria, etc. It keeps your ears healthy.
Does ear wax cause any problems?
I think people think ear wax is more of a problem and a huge hygiene issue but ear wax is best left alone and not removed or excessively treated. It's like most things in our body, it's there for a reason. I see more patients with problems because they've tried to manipulate or do something with their ear wax than people who just leave it alone.
Can I use Q-tips to clean my ears?
I usually tell people that Q-tips are good for giving me business. They are not a part of necessary ear hygiene and that's hard to get people to buy into. They get overused and what they do is push the wax down the ear canal.
If you think about your ear canal, it's a tube and there is a wall at the end, and you're just pushing it in. So, I see more troubles from Q-tips than I ever see benefit from Q-tips.
Also, I see a moderate amount of eardrum damage or ear canal damage from Q-tips. They are not anything we like to see our patients using.
When should my ears be cleaned?
The only time they need to be cleaned is when they're plugged up and you can't hear. Then they should be cleaned out. If you have that, at least, come to a medical provider the first time it happens and let them diagnose and say here's the problem. Often times, it's a one-time thing. Clean them out and you're good to go, don't use Q-tips and you'll be fine.
If you have a recurrent problem, then usually the doctor will say, here's a regiment I want you to use at home, sometimes over-the-counter products, etc.
In general, I don't have people use the over-the-counter products because it just makes your ear canal wet, squishy, and it sometimes plugs up just as much.