By Drs. Sally Robinson and Keith Bly

Earwax, also known as cerumen, is a thick, sticky liquid that has a very important job - to trap anything that flies, crawls or is blown into the ear canal, such as dirt, pollen, tiny insects and bacteria, and to keep it from going further into the ear where it can cause damage. Earwax also contains special chemicals that maintain the ear canal's acid balance and fight infections inside the ear canal. So earwax is not a bad thing - its job is actually to keep your ears clean.

Earwax isn't really "wax" like paraffin in a candle. It is actually closer in composition to the oil produced by glands in your skin. In fact, earwax is produced by similar glands located in the ear canal.

So what do you do about keeping your child's ears clean and getting rid of earwax? In most children, you don't have to do anything. Your body sheds skin cells every day. Your ear canal is lined with very fragile skin and these skin cells move very slowly and carry the wax, along with whatever the wax has trapped, along with them. So, essentially, the ear canal cleans itself.

Never stick a cotton swab, finger or anything else in your child's ear to remove earwax, and be sure to tell your children never to stick anything into their ears. Because the ear canal and eardrum are delicate, they are easily damaged. If you poke around with a cotton swab, you may push the wax and pack it further back in the ear, causing a blockage in the ear or damaging the eardrum. If you scratch the delicate skin in the ear canal, infection may result. Plus, if you have a small child, he may one day find a cotton swab and try to stick it in his ear or in the ear of a sibling.

Blockage of the ear canal is known as impaction. An impaction occurs when several layers of ear wax have been pushed back into the ear. The inner ear does not have oil glands like the skin in the ear canal, so the wax will harden there. A person with an impaction may have pain, dizziness, ringing in the ears, reduced hearing, and the sensation that that his ears have been plugged. If your child has these symptoms, call her pediatrician.

Some people's ears produce extra wax or even hard wax. Let your child's doctor know if you think his ears produce more wax than normal or if the earwax seems especially hard. The doctor may soften the wax with a medication or a warm water rinse; remove the wax through suctioning or the use of a special medical tool; or send your child to an ear specialist.

It's impossible to reduce the amount of earwax that your child produces, but here are some ways to reduce wax build-up:

 

· use wax-softening drops

· avoid cleaning the ears with instruments such as cotton swabs

· tell your child never to put anything into her ear

· limit ear cleaning to the outer ear only.

  

Dr. Sally Robinson is a pediatrician in the division of children's special services at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston. She teaches medical students about caring for children with chronic medical conditions. Dr. Keith Bly is a hospitalist and assistant professor of pediatrics at UTMB.

The Your Health column is written by health and medical experts at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston. The column focuses on topical health issues that we believe are of interest to your readers. It is e-mailed every Tuesday. If you have any questions about the column, or would like to suggest topics, please contact John Koloen, media relations specialist, at (409) 772-8790 or email jskoloen@utmb.edu.