Experts say earwax buildup can cause problems with balance, hearing, and even mood in older adults.
Earwax is yucky stuff, but for seniors it can be a lot worse than that.
Like other human fluids and secretions, earwax — cerumen, if you want to be technical — may not be pretty, but it plays an integral part in keeping your body healthy.
This buildup of skin cells, oil, and other particles helps protect against bacteria, and it also has antifungal properties.
Plus, like oil on your skin, the wax keeps the ear properly clean and moisturized.
In a healthy individual, earwax will naturally be secreted from the ear without any assistance. But for older adults, earwax buildup can have serious health consequences.
“Earwax is good. Too much earwax is no good,” Dr. Jordan Josephson, an ear, nose, and throat (ENT) specialist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City, told Healthline.
Excessive earwax buildup can result in what’s known clinically as a cerumen impaction. That’s when all or part of the ear canal has become blocked.
Seniors, particularly those staying in long-term care facilities, are more likely to have severe cerumen impactions for several reasons.
Personal grooming and self-care can decline in older individuals, which can increase the accumulation of earwax.
Over the course of years, the impaction and its subsequent health effects get worse.
“Cerumen buildup in older adults is an extremely common issue we see. Most people don’t even realize that they have an issue. The cerumen is much drier than when we were younger, so it gets hard and it creates basically a plug,” Dr. Maria Torroella Carney, division chief of Geriatrics and Palliative Medicine for Northwell Health in New York, told Healthline.
Although some facilities may be attended by ENTs or staff trained in clearing out earwax blockages, it may not be deemed a high priority.
Carney notes that when it comes to all the levels of care these facilities provide, from medication to dental care, “earwax can be at the bottom of the list.”
The immediate health effects from cerumen impaction include loss of hearing in the affected ear and potentially discomfort from pressure buildup and balance issues.
“Unilateral ear impaction can cause dizziness, usually not vertigo, but it can give you a feeling of imbalance. Close one eye and if you walk around enough, you’re going to feel like something’s not right. It’s the same way when you clog one ear,” said Josephson.
Our ears play an important role in keeping us balanced.
Mechanisms in the inner ear send signals to our brain that help keep track of our body’s movements. Dizziness or loss of balance are particularly significant for seniors.
Seniors are predisposed to falls, which are a common cause of serious injury and disability. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than 3 million older people in the United States are treated in the emergency room each year for fall-related injuries. One in five of all falls results in serious harm, such as broken bones or traumatic brain injury.
Earwax buildup can also lead to surprising outcomes in mood and functioning of the brain itself.
“If you become disconnected with loss of hearing, you’re not really building memories or retaining memories or exercising your brain. So, you can have cognitive loss or can make memory loss more profound,” said Carney.
Seniors may also find themselves in a catch-22.
Hearing aids, while beneficial, can actually worsen earwax buildup, and hearing aids themselves are often prone to damage from earwax.
Poor hearing, brought on or exacerbated by earwax buildup, also affects mood. It can lead to depression and a sense of isolation in some.
For those with dementia, it can lead to worsening behavioral problems due to difficulties communicating.
“It’s been shown firsthand that maintaining your hearing can prevent delirium or loss of cognitive function in a hospital setting,” said Carney.
However, hearing loss caused by earwax buildup is both treatable and reversible.
But don’t go running for the Q-tips. In fact, stay away from them.
“That’s the worst thing. They say you should never put anything smaller than your elbow in your ear,” said Josephson.
Instead, for regular care, he recommends gently running some warm water in your ear while you’re showering and drying it off afterward.
For those looking after seniors, it’s important that a doctor or ENT gives an assessment of the ear canals with a regular checkup — especially if the patient is wearing hearing aids.
Removing large plugs of earwax can be a difficult procedure and should be undertaken by a trained professional.
Proper diagnosis from a doctor can also identify other potential issues. The symptoms of excess earwax (balance and loss of hearing, for example) could also be caused by something like sinus pressure.