The unexpectedly protective qualities of ear wax

by Gillian Mayman on November 12, 2012

Small children are excellent at two things: producing excessive quantities of ear wax and getting ear infections. My kids, in particular, excelled in both of these areas.

As a parent, I’ve always assumed that having a lot of ear wax somehow caused, or at least exacerbated, ear infections in children. I’d never considered the possible mechanisms behind this; it’s just a blind assumption that I’ve carried around with me.

It turns out that I’ve been almost completely wrong. Earwax is useful for something other than handlebar mustaches and old timey lip balm.

Ear wax is a natural antibiotic. It protects the outer ear from infection by bacteria, viruses, and fungi.

Researchers in Malaysia studied samples of ear wax from 31 patients. They tested the ear wax for growth of three types of bacteria and one type of fungus: Staphylococcus aureus, Escherichia coli (E. coli), Pseudomonas aeruginosa, and Candida albicans.

Cultures of each of the bacteria and fungi were mixed with each sample of ear wax (or cerumen if you want to use the scientific name). E. coli was the only microorganism that did not seem affected by the presence of the ear wax. The other bacteria and fungi all showed significant amounts of decreased growth when the ear wax was introduced.

The researchers concluded that ear wax has the ability to kill both bacteria and fungi. Ear wax may help prevent and get rid of outer ear infections such as swimmer’s ear. Unfortunately, the type of ear infection that most young children suffer from is an infection of the middle ear (also known as otitis media). This study only suggests that ear wax is protective of outer ear infections.

In 1985, researchers looked at the relationship between too much ear wax and middle ear infections in a study published in the British Medical Journal. They found that there was actually less wax in the ears of children who had middle ear infections.

The mechanism behind this correlation is unclear. However, the researchers speculated that the raised temperature of the inflamed eardrum might actually be enough to melt the earwax.

[I’ll pause while you process that idea.]

This is not to say that ear wax is completely innocuous. According to the clinical practice guideline on Cerumen Impaction, too much ear wax can be responsible for “hearing loss, tinnitus, fullness, itching, otalgia, discharge, odor, or cough”.  Every year, 12 million people in the United States go to the doctor for ear wax-related problems.

It might not be time to throw out the Q-tips quite yet*.

*Q-tips should not be used to clean inside the ear. This can lead to impacted ear wax. See symptoms above for why you don’t want that to happen.