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The health benefits and dangers of earwax, from the Harvard Health Letter

Earwax, a bodily emanation that many of us would rather do without, is actually pretty useful stuff — in small amounts. It serves as a natural cleanser as it moves out of the ear, and tests have shown it has antibacterial and antifungal properties. But for many people, earwax is too much of a good thing. An ear canal plugged up with earwax can cause earaches, infections, and other problems. New guidelines from the American Academy of Otolaryngology stress a let-it-be attitude and warn against removal unless the earwax is causing a problem, reports the November 2008 issue of the Harvard Health Letter.

You can get medical help to remove an earwax blockage. Or you can take a do-it-yourself approach. Don’t try to remove the wax with a cotton swab, which tends to push the earwax back into the ear. Instead, soak a cotton ball and drip a few drops of plain water, a simple saline solution, or hydrogen peroxide into the ear with your head tilted so the opening of the ear is pointing up. Keep it in that position for a minute to allow gravity to pull the fluid down through the wax. Then tilt the head the other way and let the fluid and wax drain out. You can also use a bulb syringe to swish out the ear.

The Harvard Health Letter notes that you can also buy over-the-counter eardrops that break up earwax. Sometimes the eardrops will work on their own. Other times, a few squirts of water with a bulb syringe are needed. A clinician tackles an earwax problem in pretty much the same way as a do-it-yourselfer, but with more expertise, a better view, and better tools.

Also in this issue of the Harvard Health Letter

  • What is normal?
  • Got an ear full? Here's some advice.
  • Rubbing it in
  • Fishing out some answers
  • By the way, doctor: How can a stress test be wrong?
  • By the way, doctor: What is the healthiest amount of sleep?

More Harvard Health News »


About Harvard Health Publications

Harvard Health Publications publishes four monthly newsletters--Harvard Health Letter, Harvard Women's Health Watch, Harvard Men's Health Watch, and Harvard Heart Letter--as well as more than 50 special health reports and books drawing on the expertise of the 8,000 faculty physicians at Harvard Medical School and its world-famous affiliated hospitals.