Struggling with tinnitus and suspecting earwax could be the cause? The relationship between the two might not be as straightforward as you'd expect. Earwax plays a crucial role in safeguarding your ear canal. But when it comes to tinnitus, could this natural defence mechanism actually be a contributing factor?
In this comprehensive guide, we'll specifically explore the role of earwax in tinnitus, providing you with signs to look for and actionable solutions for relief.
Ear Wax, Tinnitus - What's the Link?
It is possible that ear wax is the culprit causing the tinnitus if it is blocking sound from entering the canal. An important thing to know is that ear wax, also referred to medically as cerumen, occurs naturally and serves to protect the skin of the ear canal.
Once you’ve had your ears professionally cleaned, if you still notice tinnitus, the Oto app provides a comprehensive approach to reducing tinnitus intrusion.
Below, you'll find a guide to know if and when ear wax is causing tinnitus, and what can be done about it to improve your tinnitus.
What is earwax?
Ear "wax", known medically as cerumen, is a bit of a misnomer in that it is not really wax like the substance of candles. Instead, it is a naturally occurring substance in the outer and inner ear that is comprised of:
- Skin cells
- Oil from ceruminous and sebaceous glands
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What is the purpose of earwax?
Earwax serves several essential functions for your ear health. Contrary to popular belief, a healthy amount of the substance is generally not a cause of tinnitus, and symptoms may even subside naturally over time.
Functions of earwax:
- Moisturisation: One of its primary roles is to moisturise the skin within the canal. This prevents dry, itchy ears, which can be uncomfortable and lead to other complications.
- Protection: It acts as a natural barrier, trapping dirt, dust, and other particles that could otherwise enter the ear and potentially cause damage or infection.
- Self-cleaning: Believe it or not, earwax contributes to the ear's self-cleaning mechanism. As it moves outward, it collects debris and helps in its natural expulsion.
- Anti-microbial properties: The substance contains enzymes that have antibacterial and antifungal properties, offering another layer of protection against infections.
- Sound transmission: While not its primary function, a moderate amount of earwax can also aid in the transmission of sound within the ear canal.
How Does Ear Wax Affect the Ears?
Ear wax should exist in the ears but it can become problematic if:
- It blocks sound from entering the ear canal, thus causing tinnitus
- It interferes with using ear buds, noise cancelling ear buds, or hearing aids
- It causes irritation or discomfort in the ear*
*It's important to bear in mind that there are other causes of ear discomfort and irritation. It's recommended to consult a general practitioner or otolaryngologist if ear symptoms persist.
Different Textures and Qualities of Ear Wax
Earwax can vary from person to person, and it depends on a number of variables such as genetics and ethnicity.
Some common variations include:
- Dark purple, red, brown, or black (generally suggests that it has been in the canal for a longer period and sometimes may require medical attention)
- Hard or impacted deep in the canal
- Visible in small amounts or not noticeable at all
- Clumpy or only present in certain parts of the canal
Is the colour, amount, and texture of your earwax normal? Check out this video to see what your earwax says about your health.
Can earwax cause tinnitus?
While tinnitus can have multiple causes, earwax buildup is one of the factors that can contribute to these symptoms. Below, we delve into various aspects of this question to provide a comprehensive understanding.
How does earwax buildup happen?
Earwax usually migrates out of the ear naturally. However, the following factors can lead to buildup:
- Age: The consistency of our earwax can change as we age, becoming drier and harder to move through the ear canal.
- Use of hearing aids or earplugs: Devices inserted into the ear can prevent the migration of earwax, causing it to accumulate over time.
- Anatomical structure: Some people have narrow or unusually shaped ear canals, which can hinder the flow.
- Excessive production: Certain medical conditions or even a genetic predisposition can lead to excessive production, overwhelming the ear's cleaning process.
- Lifestyle factors: Activities like swimming can introduce moisture into the ear, causing earwax to swell and potentially become trapped.
- Manual removal attempts: Ironically, manual removal attempts using cotton swabs or other tools can often push the wax deeper into the ear canal, exacerbating the problem.
How does earwax cause tinnitus?
To understand how earwax causes tinnitus, it's essential to know how sound is conducted within the ear.
Sound waves enter the ear canal and reach the eardrum, causing it to vibrate. These vibrations are then transferred to the inner ear, where they are processed and sent to the brain as sound signals. Any obstruction in this pathway can distort these transmissions, potentially leading to tinnitus.
When excessive earwax builds up, it can create two primary types of obstructions:
- Pressing against the eardrum: This can dampen the eardrum's natural vibrations, affecting the quality of sound that is transmitted to the inner ear.
- Blocking the ear canal: It can also create a blockage in the ear canal itself, preventing sound waves from reaching the eardrum effectively.
Both of these scenarios can distort the natural sound conduction process, leading to the perception of phantom noises like ringing, buzzing, or hissing, which are commonly associated with tinnitus.
Additionally, the pressure or fluid buildup caused by impacted earwax can irritate the delicate structures of the ear, further contributing to such symptoms. This can exacerbate the auditory distortions, making the tinnitus more persistent and potentially more severe.
With that said, the severity of symptoms can vary from person to person. For some, it may be a mild, temporary condition that resolves itself once the earwax is removed. For others, especially those with chronic earwax accumulation issues, the tinnitus can be more persistent and may require ongoing management.
Other symptoms of earwax-related tinnitus
When tinnitus is caused by earwax buildup, it's often not an isolated symptom. Recognising the common co-occurring signs is crucial for accurate diagnosis and effective treatment.
Diagnosing earwax-related tinnitus
If you're experiencing severe symptoms like persistent tinnitus, significant hearing loss, or intense ear pain and suspect it is related to earwax buildup, it is important to consult a healthcare professional for a proper diagnosis. They will typically perform a physical check of the ears using an otoscope to visualise the ear canal and eardrum. In some cases, additional examinations may be necessary, such as a hearing test or imaging studies.
How to remove excessive earwax
If you're dealing with issues related to excessive earwax, you're likely wondering how to safely and effectively remove the buildup. Here’s how to do it correctly:
- Ear drops: Saline-based or carbamide peroxide ear drops can soften the earwax, making it easier to remove. These come with a bulb syringe to gently flush out the softened earwax. Make sure to use warm water to avoid dizziness. Importantly, follow the instructions on the packaging and consult a pharmacist if you have any concerns.
- Warm oil: A few drops of warm olive or mineral oil can help. Tilt your head to one side and use a dropper to apply the oil. Wait for five to 10 minutes before tilting your head the other way to let the oil and wax drain out.
- Hydrogen peroxide: A solution of hydrogen peroxide and water can also be effective. However, this method is not recommended for those with sensitive skin or ear infections.
- Curette: Some people opt for manual removal using a curette. This should only be done by a healthcare provider to avoid damaging the ear canal or eardrum.
- Microsuction: This is a medical procedure which involves the use of a microscope and a small suction device to remove the earwax. It's considered safe and effective but should only be performed by a qualified individual.
What to avoid
- Cotton swabs: Contrary to popular belief, cotton swabs can push the earwax further into the ear canal, exacerbating the problem.
- Candling: This method involves inserting a hollow candle into the ear and lighting it to create a vacuum to draw out the earwax. However, it's widely considered to be ineffective and potentially dangerous.
- Sharp items: Do not use any other sharp object in the canal which can damage or perforate the eardrum.
- Special cases: If you have a history of a tear or hole in the eardrum (medically referred to as a tympanic membrane perforation) or ear surgery, do not treat yourself. Consult an otolaryngologist for earwax removal.
Precautions and aftercare
- Follow-up: After any earwax removal procedure, a follow-up appointment is recommended to ensure that all the residue has been successfully withdrawn and to check for any potential complications.
- Ongoing maintenance: If you're prone to earwax buildup, your healthcare provider may recommend regular check-ups and possibly preventive treatment.
How Often Does Ear Wax Need to Be Removed?
Most people will not need to have ear wax managed, but for those who do, how often to have ear wax checked, managed, or removed depends on a variety of factors:
- Do you have a history of having excessive wax buildup?
- Can the ear wax be managed at home?
- Does the ear wax build up and block the canal?
- Does the ear wax cause difficulty hearing, ear fullness, irritation, itching, tinnitus, or other ear complaints?
It's a good idea to discuss if and when to have wax removed with your ear and hearing care professionals to determine if pre-scheduling ear wax removal appointments is necessary, or if there are at-home techniques that can be safe and effective.
For people who need professional wax removal, the procedure typically scheduled once every couple weeks to months.
Does Removing Ear Wax Improve Tinnitus?
For wax removal to improve tinnitus, the ear wax must be blocking sound from passing through the ear canal and removal method must remove enough of the ear wax so as to create a pathway for sound.
It's possible that wax removal can improve tinnitus if it softens the wax such that it comes out of the ears naturally.
Removing ear wax that is blocking sound from passing through the ear canal to the ear drum can improve tinnitus immediately.
The tinnitus may go away completely or it may simply just improve (sound softer or seem more tolerable).
Sometimes the tinnitus does not improve, and in this case, the ear wax is assumed to not be the only contributor to the tinnitus.
Other causes of tinnitus beyond earwax buildup
It's essential to recognise that tinnitus can have multiple causes. If you've ruled out earwax buildup or have experienced only temporary relief after its removal, you may need to explore other potential reasons for your symptoms. This section aims to shed light on the various factors.
- Age-related hearing loss: As you age, your hearing naturally deteriorates. This decline is most commonly observed in individuals over the age of 60.
- Noise exposure: Exposure to loud noises, whether sudden or over an extended period, can cause temporary or even permanent tinnitus. Hence, occupations involving loud machinery or frequent attendance at loud concerts can put you at risk.
- Medications: Certain medications, including some antibiotics, antimalarial drugs, and certain diuretics, can cause tinnitus as a side effect. Always consult your healthcare provider if you suspect your medication is causing your symptoms.
- Ear or head injuries: Injuries to the ear or head can affect the inner ear. This includes traumatic brain injuries (TBIs) and damage to the ear bones.
- Cardiovascular issues: Poor circulation, high blood pressure, or arterial issues can also be a cause. In such cases, the condition often manifests as a pulsing sound in sync with your heartbeat.
- Meniere's disease: This inner ear disorder affects balance and hearing. It usually affects only one ear and can cause severe dizziness and hearing loss.
- Eustachian tube dysfunction: This tube connects the middle ear to the back of the nose and helps regulate ear pressure. Dysfunction can lead to symptoms like fullness in the ear, hearing loss, and tinnitus.
- Temporomandibular Joint (TMJ) disorders: Issues with the jaw joint and surrounding muscles can also cause tinnitus. In such cases, it usually comes and goes and may be accompanied by jaw pain or headaches.
- Psychological factors: Stress and anxiety can exacerbate the sounds or make you more aware of them. While they are not direct causes, managing stress can often help reduce symptoms.
Oto: Your go-to digital support for tinnitus
If you've been wrestling with the persistent annoyance of tinnitus, you may have explored various potential causes, including excessive earwax. However, it's crucial to understand that earwax buildup is not always the culprit.
Even when it does play a role, a holistic strategy is vital for effectively managing your symptoms. Introducing Oto, your all-encompassing digital partner in the journey to tune out tinnitus.
Why Choose Oto?
Oto is a mission-driven platform created by a team that intimately understands the challenges of tinnitus. With a unique blend of medical acumen and personal empathy, it offers a scientifically-backed yet user-friendly solution.
The Power of CBT
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) stands as the cornerstone of Oto's approach. It is recognised as the most effective evidence-based method for helping individuals cope with tinnitus. Unlike other platforms that focus on hardware or traditional therapies, we leverage the unparalleled effectiveness of CBT to offer real solutions.
Tailored Digital Programs
The mobile app is a treasure trove of expertly curated content that addresses various aspects of life impacted by tinnitus, from sleep to focus. It also features a guided audio program that mimics a personal therapy session, offering immediate and tailored support.
Instant Support, Anytime, Anywhere
Accessibility is key. With Oto, you can tap into a wealth of resources right from your mobile device, no matter where you are. The platform also hosts exclusive webinars and Q&As with global tinnitus experts, keeping you informed and empowered.
1-1 Personalised Support
For a more individualised approach, we offer a 1-1 program that marries expert video coaching with the app's digital resources. This synergistic method provides a bespoke roadmap to help you tune out tinnitus more effectively and quickly.
The platform is designed to be intuitive, making it accessible for everyone, regardless of tech proficiency. Additional features like success stories and free consultations offer extra layers of support.
Addressing your concerns
- Daily interruptions: Oto equips you with the tools to minimise tinnitus-related disruptions in your daily life.
- Sleep quality: Specialised sleep content ensures you can achieve restful sleep despite the challenges.
- Stress management: With CBT techniques and mindfulness practices, Oto helps you manage stress and anxiety effectively.
Tinnitus is a complex condition with a multitude of potential causes, ranging from excessive earwax to age-related hearing loss and even certain medications. While earwax management can offer some relief, it's rarely a standalone solution. A holistic approach, encompassing various treatments and lifestyle adjustments, is often the most effective strategy.
CBT stands out as the most useful proven therapy for tinnitus. Leveraging the unparalleled benefits of this therapy, Oto stands as your digital ally, offering a tailored approach to help you effectively tune out tinnitus.
Ready to take the next step in your journey to combat tinnitus? Start with Oto today.