The problem with a build up of ear wax

One of the less commonly spoken about symptoms of old age is a tendency to produce more ear wax.

Putting the indignity of it aside, producing excessive ear wax can also lead to health problems, such as hearing loss, hearing a ringing sound in your ears, and vertigo.

What is ear wax?

Earwax is not actually wax – it is a build up of dirt, dust and debris, bound together by a substance called cerumen.

Cerumen is created by hormones in the skin inside the ear, and it actually protects the ears.

However, sometimes the build up of ear wax reaches a point that it actually blocks the ear canal – a condition called impaction.

Impaction is a common problem in aged care facilities

It’s believed that as many as two-thirds of people living in aged care facilities suffer from an ear canal blockage.

Blockages can be detected by a specialist with an otoscope – a device that allows the user to look deep into the ear canal – to tell if wax is creating a blockage.

Impaction can happen gradually over time, and residents of aged care facilities may not come forward to complain of discomfort or the feeling of a change within their ear, so it’s important that carers check residents’ ears regularly, to ensure there is not a build up of wax.

Generally, a blockage of the ear canal is nothing to be concerned about. But it may cause symptoms such as an earache, mild deafness, a ringing in the ear, and a ‘full’ feeling inside the ear.

But a 2014 study found that elderly people’s hearing and cognitive ability improved once impacted ear wax was removed – so the effects of impaction can be insidious.

Impaction is usually easily solved. Treatment usually involves using drops to soften the wax, and then irrigating the ear canal gently with a syringe of warm water.

What factors increase the likelihood of ear blockages?

Some people are more prone to ear blockages. Those with narrow ear canals – or those with hairy ear canals – are more likely to experience impaction.

Those who over-clean their ears may think they’re doing themselves a favour, but they may simply be pushing ear wax back into the canal, increasing the likelihood of a blockage.

Working in a dirty environment may cause an increased build up of ear wax, and inflammatory skin conditions can also contribute to blocked ear canals.

How to prevent ear wax from causing a blockage?

So, how can we prevent ear wax from building up and creating a blockage?

  • Soften wax with drops of oil or glycerin.
  • Gently squirt warm water into the ear canal to remove wax.
  • Use a nasal spray regularly.
  • Don’t use a cotton bud to clean ears, as the tip may simply compact the wax back into your ear. Only clean around the outside of the ear.
  • Treat any skin disorders around the ear.
  • Drink plenty of fluids.
  • In residential aged care facilities, check ears regularly.
  • Those with hearing aids, should also have their ears checked every three to six months.
  • And specialists say that people living with dementia should also have their ears checked regularly.

Residents of aged care facilities may not come forward if they begin to experience changes with their ears – but the care of their ears must not be forgotten.

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