Earwax is a natural secretion found in the ear with an important function. Earwax, also known as cerumen, keeps the ear canal lubricated — protecting the inner ear from dirt and bacteria. In turn, this helps prevent ear infections.
Sometimes, too much earwax can build up in the ear. There are a several reasons why this might occur:
- Your ear canals are unusually narrow or damaged.
- You have a lot of hair growing in your ear canals (that traps too much earwax).
- You have a skin condition that affects your scalp or the skin around your ear.
- You have an ear infection (like Otitis Externa, “swimmers ear”) which causes your ear canal to become inflamed.
- Dry ears — particularly a problem in older people.
Excess earwax buildup causes discomfort, hearing loss and a ringing sensation in the ears. This ringing sensation is a symptom of a condition known as tinnitus. It’s not an external sound so other people can’t hear it. Tinnitus is not a rare condition, and it affects around 15-20% of people (It’s particularly common in older adults.)
What Causes Tinnitus?
One of the most important things you need to know about tinnitus is that it’s not a disease. Tinnitus is a symptom indicating there’s a problem with your auditory system. This includes the auditory nerve that connects the inner ear to the brain and the parts of the brain that process sound, such as the auditory cortex.
When there’s too much earwax in your ears, you might have attempted to clean them with a cotton bud or other object. This is dangerous, risking perforation of the eardrum and increasing the likelihood of infection. Inserting objects into your ear can push the earwax further into your ear canal, causing impacted wax. The pressure from this impacted wax stimulates nerve cells in the inner ear and the brain mistakenly reads these signals as noise.
Next time you’re reaching for the cotton buds, think again. If you’re looking to clean your ears, read our guide on cleaning your ears without using cotton buds.
Although tinnitus is commonly caused by excess earwax buildup, it can also be the result of certain health conditions, like:
- Infections of the ear and sinus
- Hearing loss induced by loud noises
- Heart or blood vessel diseases
- Ménière’s disease
- Brain tumours
- Thyroid problems
- Hormonal changes in women
- A side effect from some medications.
Often, tinnitus is one of the early signs of hearing loss. Those who work in noisy environments, such as construction workers or musicians, can develop tinnitus over time. This is due to an ongoing exposure of noise damaging the sensory hair cells in the inner ear, which transmits sound waves to the brain. Tinnitus is one of the most common conditions among servicemen and women returning from war in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Despite the many potential causes of tinnitus, some people develop the condition for no obvious reason. When the sound is loud and persistent, it can cause fatigue, depression and anxiety. Identifying tinnitus early on can minimise the risk of developing a more serious health condition.
What Does Tinnitus Feel Like?
Tinnitus is not exclusively a ringing sensation in the ears, although it is most frequently described as this. Tinnitus can manifest in different sounds, such as buzzing, roaring, clicking, hissing or humming. Tinnitus varies in pitch from low roaring sounds to high squeals and can be heard in one or both ears. It isn’t always present either, and in rare cases, like pulsatile tinnitus, the sound is a rhythmic pulsing or whooshing that matches your heartbeat.
Treatment for Tinnitus
The first stage of action is to see an experienced audiologist or doctor to determine the cause of your tinnitus. As we’ve established, tinnitus could result from an underlying health condition or a side effect of some medication. If it is excess earwax buildup causing your tinnitus, there are ear wax removal options out there that are safe and effective.
Microsuction ear wax removal is probably the best option, as it uses gentle suction (like a vacuum) to remove wax from the ear. This method is less messy than irrigation which uses water to flush out earwax. It also minimises the risk of infection, as the microsuction process is done dry with no direct contact with the skin or ear canal.
Don’t leave tinnitus untreated. Book a hearing consultation with one of our expert audiologists today and find out how we can help you regain your hearing.