Ear wax, also known by the medical term cerumen, is a substance secreted in outer third of the ear canal. It consists of secretions from sebaceous and ceruminous glands, epithelial cells and other debris (e.g.: dust). The colour and texture of wax can be extremely variable and is dependent on ethnicity, age, diet, hormonal fluctuations, etc. For example, older adults may have drier ear wax.
As the ear is self-cleaning, no intervention is required for ear wax unless it is impacted. Ear wax actually has many important roles: it cleans, protects and lubricates the ear. It keeps foreign bodies (e.g.: bugs, dirt, sand, etc.) from entering further into the ear. It is also antibacterial, antimicrobial and antifungal. The ear canal is a very dark and humid place and the acidic properties that ear wax provides help prevent infections!
Hearing aid users are at a greater risk of ear wax impaction. Each time a hearing aid is inserted it will push ear wax in deeper. Over time this can build up and block the ear canal and/or block the hearing aid. Common symptoms associated with wax buildup are reduced hearing acuity, tinnitus, ear pain, itching, a feeling of pressure and fullness (similar to being underwater). For hearing aid users, a significant buildup of ear wax can also result in a dramatic increase in the presence of feedback and whistling from the hearing devices.
You may be tempted to insert a cotton swab as an attempt to remove the wax, but this can do more harm than good, causing more impaction by compressing the wax deeper into the ear! If you suspect a blockage, it is best to consult with your Physician or your hearing health care professional to have it addressed. Ear wax removal is typically done by irrigation (with warm water), suction, or manual removal with instruments.
Schwartz SR, Magit AE, Rosenfeld RM, et al. Clinical practice guideline (update): earwax (cerumen impaction) [published correction appears in Otolaryngol Head Neck Surg. 2017;157(3):539]. Otolaryngol Head Neck Surg. 2017;156(1 suppl):S1–S29.