Harvard Health Letter

Got an ear full? Here's some advice.

Some earwax is good for your ears, so often the best policy is to leave it alone. And a few drops of water may be all you need to get rid of a blockage.

Earwax, a bodily emanation that many of us would rather do without, is actually pretty useful stuff — in small amounts. It's a natural cleanser as it moves from inside the ear canal outward, gathering dead skin cells, hair, and dirt along the way. Tests have shown that it has antibacterial and antifungal properties. If your ears don't have enough earwax, they're likely to feel itchy and uncomfortable. And if you don't have the right kind, you may be more likely to get ear infections. Researchers have found that the earwax of people with diabetes is less acidic than that of people without the disease, a difference that may help explain why some people with the disease are prone to ear infections.

But for many people, earwax is manifestly too much of a good thing. An ear canal plugged up with earwax can cause earaches, infections, and other problems. If it gets lodged in a certain way, earwax can cause a cough by stimulating the branch of the vagus nerve that supplies the outer ear. And, not surprisingly, an excess of earwax can result in some loss of hearing.

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