You probably think of it as gross gunk, but earwax—what doctors call cerumen—actually deserves your respect.
That's because it protects your ears. It helps keep dust and bacteria and other germs from entering and damaging them. It also keeps the delicate skin in your ear canal from getting irritated if water gets into it—say, while you shower or swim.
If the merits of earwax surprise you, so might these other facts:
1. The volume of earwax varies. Some people—mostly men and older adults—produce a lot. All of that wax usually makes its way out of the ear canal (where it forms) to the ear's opening (where it falls out). Every movement of our jaws pushes it along, but occasionally wax builds up in the ear canal.
2. Earwax can hurt hearing. Sometimes a build-up of earwax forms a plug in the ear canal that causes a partial hearing loss. Researchers estimate that removing that plug can improve hearing by 10 decibels. The difference between quiet whispering and normal conversation is only about 20 decibels.
3. Removing earwax with cotton swabs is a no-no. If you insert any object into your ear, you risk pushing earwax deeper into your ear canal. The wax could form a blockage or make an existing blockage worse. Ask your doctor about safe ways to remove earwax, such as placing a few drops of baby oil in your ear. That can soften any hardened wax so it can work its way out.
4. Sometimes a doctor needs to remove earwax. Tell your doctor if you have hearing loss that persists after trying to remove earwax or if you have ear pain, a fever or drainage from your ear.
Sources: American Academy of Otolaryngology—Head and Neck Surgery; National Institutes of Health