What Produces Wax Plugs?

Are wax plugs a common problem for you? We'll analyze three habits that may be the cause of the problem and some interesting facts.
What Produces Wax Plugs?
Diego Pereira

Reviewed and approved by el médico Diego Pereira.

Last update: 23 February, 2023

Wax plugs, or cerumen plugs, are a relatively common problem. Blockage of the ear canal as a result of earwax buildup is called impaction.

It’s not the only associated problem, as infections such as external otitis are also related complications. Let’s take a look at everything you need to know about wax plugs, with an emphasis on the habits that encourage their excess production.

The characteristics of wax plugs

As the researchers point out, cerumen is a protective secretion produced by the cartilaginous skin gland in the outer third of the ear canal. Certainly, among its main functions, the following stand out:

  • Lubricating the ear canal
  • Trapping the dust that enters from the exterior and preventing it from reaching the eardrum
  • Offering protection against fungi and bacteria
  • Preventing external agents, such as small insects, from entering the canal
Wax plugs are annoying.
Everyone can develop wax plugs at some point in their life. In many cases, they don’t cause symptoms, but in others, they represent a risk factor for infections.

The role of earwax is by no means inconsequential. However, its accumulation or excessive production causes more problems than benefits. Under normal conditions, the cerumen is replaced by itself with the help of the movement of the jaw when chewing.

Cerumen is impacted when the eardrum, canal, or both can’t be seen during a hearing evaluation. Wax plugs can cause hearing impairment, as the volume of the wax prevents sound waves from fully reaching the eardrum. It can also be a source of infections that cause localized pain in the area.

The amount of wax a person produces is determined by many variables. Production is conditioned by genetic factors, meaning that someone can produce more wax than “normal” without doing anything to contribute to its accumulation. The shape of the ear canal, for example, the smallest ones, can also play a role in the appearance of wax plugs.

According to estimates, cerumen impaction affects up to 6% of the general population, 10% of children, and more than 30% of the elderly. Despite being a very common problem, many ignore the habits that encourage its development. Before showing you the main ones, we’ll review what earwax is exactly.

What are wax plugs made of?

Earwax is a hydrophobic (chemically incompatible with water ) waxy substance. It’s made of dead skin cells, hair from the ear canal, and a series of compounds. Among the latter, the predominant ones are keratin, long-chain fatty acids, cholesterol, and squalene. There are two types: Dry earwax and moist earwax.

Most people have moist earwax, distinguished by its classic honey-brown or dark orange (and derivative shades) color. However, a part of the population, among which Asians stand out, has dry earwax. This is characterized by a shade of gray or scaly white. Whether you develop one type of earwax or another is genetically determined.

3 habits that encourage wax plugs

As experts rightly point out, the idiopathic overproduction of cerumen explains a good number of wax plugs. This is regardless of your habits, meaning there are people with a greater natural predisposition than others to develop earwax occlusions. However, certain habits and practices explain many episodes, among which we highlight the following.

1. Using cotton swabs

Wax plugs from the use of swabs.
One of the best-known cleaning practices is the use of cotton swabs. Ideally, they should only be used in the outer ear and not in the canal.

Although people use cotton swabs to remove excess earwax, the truth is that in practice, it can have the opposite effect. Specialists warn about the problems associated with its inappropriate use, among which are ear infections, eardrum perforation, and wax accumulation in the canal.

Cerumen migration is done naturally. It happens when you chew food. The movement, little by little, drifts the earwax outward and it falls out on its own. By using cotton swabs, you do nothing but hinder this process, pushing all or part of the wax toward the bottom of the canal.

2. Using headphones frequently

The use of headphones is one of the most important risk factors for the appearance of wax plugs. Especially, when used in the company of loud sound.

These can prevent the migration of earwax outward, and the vibration of the canal stimulates the glands that mediate the production of the substance. Ear infection and hearing loss, based on the evidence, are other problems associated with their use.

3. Inserting objects into the ear canal

These objects can be pens, pencils, and even the finger itself. It’s an unconscious habit in many people, which can push the earwax inward and prevent its natural renewal. It’s for this reason that those who regularly use earplugs can manifest this problem on a regular basis.

In addition to this, trauma to the ear canal, surgery, benign bone growths in the canal (such as osteomas), soft tissue malformations, and excess hair can also cause wax plugs to appear. Their causes are very varied, although most of the episodes are explained through the three previous routes.

If you want to avoid wax plugs, consider evaluating the risk factors mentioned. If you have any questions, consult your specialist, especially when removing the plugs. There are many alternatives on the market with no scientific support, as is the case with ear candling. Far from solving the problem, they can cause many more issues.

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  • Horton GA, Simpson MTW, Beyea MM, Beyea JA. Cerumen Management: An Updated Clinical Review and Evidence-Based Approach for Primary Care Physicians. J Prim Care Community Health. 2020 Jan-Dec;11:2150132720904181.
  • Nagala S, Singh P, Tostevin P. Extent of cotton-bud use in ears. Br J Gen Pract. 2011 Nov;61(592):662-3.
  • Mazlan R, Saim L, Thomas A, Said R, Liyab B. Ear infection and hearing loss amongst headphone users. Malays J Med Sci. 2002 Jul;9(2):17-22.
  • Sevy, J. O., & Singh, A. Cerumen Impaction Removal. 2017.

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