Like eye boogers, toe jam and snot, earwax is one of those bodily issues we'd rather not talk about. But that waxy, sticky (sometimes smelly) stuff inside your ears is perfectly natural and even vital for your ear health (more on this later).
But the color, consistency and amount of your earwax can vary depending on things like infections, injury or even genetics.
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Here, Michael J. Kortbus, MD, FACS, a board-certified otolaryngologist and fellow of the American College of Surgeons, helps us decipher earwax, explaining what's normal and when it's time to see your ear doc.
Some medical experts believe earwax signifies a great deal about the general status of someone’s health and can be influenced by a person’s endocrine state — for example, that the nature and color of wax could change based on hormones or blood sugar — but this has not been proven in medical research, Dr. Kortbus says. More studies are needed to better understand the connection (if any) between cerumen and overall health.
1. White, Yellow or Orange Earwax
"Normal wax tends to be oily, waxy and of a clear, opaque, yellow or slightly auburn color," Dr. Kortbus says.
However, healthy earwax can vary considerably from none at all to a dense orange cerumen secreted daily, and most often these scenarios don't indicate disease.
Conversely, "if someone who did not have cerumen before suddenly develops a change in cerumen, this could signify a change in the ear canals or the state of health," Dr. Kortbus says.
2. Yellow, Milky Discharge
If you experience ear discharge that looks like yellow milk, you might have an infection.
"The ear canals always have bacteria and fungal spores within, like all our skin does," Dr. Kortbus says.
Indeed, our ear canals are warm, dark and moist, providing the perfect place for microbes like fungi to flourish, which can contribute to outer ear infections.
Also note: In addition to yellow, milky secretions, you're likely to experience some degree of discomfort or pain and redness with bacterial infections, Dr. Kortbus says. The earwax or discharge may also have a foul odor.
And while the warmth and darkness within the ear canals is fairly constant and beyond our control, Dr. Kortbus says there are some simple things you can do to prevent outer ear infections:
- Prevent water from getting in the ear canals. One way is to wear swimming ear plugs (not foam noise-blocking ear plugs).
- Wipe the outer part of the canal with a towel or tissue after bathing.
- Use a hair dryer on a cool setting to evaporate any moisture in the ears. (Avoid hot air — you don't want to risk a burn or create even more warmth that results in fungal growth.)
If you think you have an ear infection, see your doctor, who may prescribe an antibiotic to treat the infection.
3. Wet Ear Discharge
While wet ear discharge can be perfectly benign and is even common in people of European or African descent, per the Hearing Loss Association of America (HLAA), sometimes it can signal a fungal infection.
"Unlike bacterial infections that are painful and may cause redness, fungal infections are typically not painful, lead to a wet ear discharge that often does not have an odor or color and might take many weeks to months to get back to a normal type of ear flora," Dr. Kortbus says.
Dr. Kortbus recommends this simple remedy for those who have an issue with recurrent ear infections:
- Mix a 50:50 concoction of isopropyl [rubbing] alcohol and distilled white vinegar.Cold liquids in the ear can cause vertigo for some people, so make sure it is room temperature or a little warmer (but not hot).
- Tilt your head, so that the ear you're treating faces the sky, and gently pull the crescent-shaped part of the ear toward the back of the head to open the canal. If you pull too hard, it will hurt, so do this gently.
- Using a syringe or eye dropper, apply the alcohol-vinegar mixture into the ear and let gravity pull it into the canal. You might momentarily experience muffled hearing — that means the solution is traveling to the right place.
- After a few moments, turn your ear toward the ground. This should help unclog your ear.
If this home remedy doesn't help, seek medical care.
4. Red or Black Wax
Red wax usually means there's bleeding in the ear canal, while black wax could simply be aged cerumen or an old blood clot, Dr. Kortbus says.
Bleeding can occur when you stick a cotton swab in your ear (a major no-no) or simply when you scratch an itch with your fingernail and inadvertently scrape the canal, Dr. Kortbus says. Luckily, these types of abrasions tend to heal themselves.
Note: See a doctor if the ear becomes warm or painful and inflamed, as this could be a sign of infection.
5. Dry, Flaky Wax
For certain populations, including people of northeast Asian and Native American descent, dry crumbly earwax is common, per the HLAA.
But sometimes certain skin conditions — such as keratitis, dermatitis, eczema and psoriasis — can lead to dry, flaky wax, Dr. Kortbus says. In such cases, the "ear canals only exude keratin, which is a protein made by skin that may need surgical removal on a regular basis if it blocks hearing," he explains.
6. Excessive Earwax
If you're up to your ears in earwax, it could be genetic.
"About a year ago, a patient came in with a genetic analysis of his DNA that noted that he had a 96 percent chance of having excess cerumen," Dr. Kortbus says.
And while earwax normally clears out of the canal naturally, excessive earwax may accumulate and cause health issues, including hearing loss, pain, dizziness and ringing in the ears, according to the Cleveland Clinic.
Though you might be tempted to dig out the wax with a cotton swab, this will only push it farther into your ears and make things worse. Instead, see your primary care provider or an otolaryngologist who can "flush the ears" with lukewarm sterile or distilled water, Dr. Kortbus says.
Why You Should Never Use Q-Tips in Your Ears
“Cotton-tipped applicators should never be used in or around the ears,” Dr. Kortbus says. Here’s why:
- If you’re startled or make a sudden movement, the applicator can be driven into the eardrum, which may lead to permanent hearing loss.
- Using a cotton swab tends to pack the wax in the ear canal, which can result in a wax impaction that requires medical care.
- Q-tips can scratch the ear canal or eardrum and cause bleeding.
- If the cotton applicator falls off in the canal, you may need surgery to remove it.
What Is Earwax Made Of?
Earwax (also known as cerumen) is made by the ceruminous glands, together with the sebaceous glands, in the ear canals, Dr. Kortbus says. It owes its signature waxy consistency to its composition, which is mostly fat.
And while you might think your ear gunk is gross, it serves an essential protective function: "Earwax [which is anti-bacterial and anti-fungal] moisturizes the canals and traps particles before they can get deeper inside," Dr. Kortbus says.
It also prevents the delicate skin of the ear canal from irritation when it encounters water, per the U.S. National Library of Medicine.
Normally, ears make a slight wax that finds its way out of the ear naturally through jaw motions like talking and chewing. Consequently, "there's no need to let the shower water or soap run into the ear canals — in fact, it might be harmful," Dr. Kortbus says.
Instead, maintain proper skin hygiene by cleaning around and behind your ears, he says.
Is this an emergency? If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, please see the National Library of Medicine’s list of signs you need emergency medical attention or call 911.