A common but reversible cause of hearing loss is impacted cerumen, ear wax in the external auditory canal. Cerumen is produced by sebaceous and apocrine glands in the outer portion of the external auditory canal and serves to lubricate and protect the canal. Normally produced in small amounts, cerumen is gradually propelled out of the ear by the action of the cilia (small hair) and the movements of chewing and talking. While some individuals will form only small amounts of cerumen other people tend to form excessive amounts, which may accumulate and obstruct the ear canal. The obstruction or impaction may interfere with the passage of sound vibrations through the external canal to the middle ear and affect a person’s ability to hear and communicate.
With increased age, changes occur in the external auditory canal that may affect the production and movement of cerumen. For example, older men often develop stiff, course hairs in the ear canal that interfere with the normal movement or removal process of cerumen. Loss of elasticity of the cartilage also may result in a abnormal narrowing of the ear canal, which makes it difficult to remove cerumen. Characteristically, hearing loss is slowly developing, bilateral high frequency impairment with a lack of ability to hear and understand conversational speech. If the defect is cerumen impaction identification and removal of the impaction may restore hearing acuity and relieve symptoms associated with impactions. Individuals with cerumen buildup may experience a feeling of fullness, itching, ear pain, or hear ringing in the ear. Cerumen removal should be performed in a doctor’s office and may be attempted by irrigation of the external auditory canal, with or without the use of ceruminolytics or by manual removal using curette, forcepts, or suction. Have your ears checked regularly by your primary care provider.
It is very important that you clean your ears with extra care. Wipe the outer ear with a washcloth or tissue. Do not put anything into the ear smaller than your elbow. Do not use Q-tips, bobby pins or sharp pointed objects to clean the ears. These objects may injure the ear canal, eardrum, or pack the cerumen further down the ear canal.
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