By Markham Heid
It’s kind of gross. But you can learn a lot about what’s going on inside your body by paying attention to the stuff it produces. The colour and consistency of your pee, poop, saliva, and snot can signal potential health issues—or reassure you that all’s well. The same is true of the stuff that oozes out of your ears, though experts say your earwax isn’t as informative as a lot of people assume.
“To be honest, earwax doesn’t warrant a lot of attention in our practice,” says Brett Comer, MD, an assistant professor and otolaryngologist (ear, nose, and throat doc) at the University of Kentucky. Earwax—or “cerumen,” to use what Comer calls its “50-cent term”—helps keep dirt and bacteria from getting too far inside your ear canal. “People seem to worry about it a lot, and they ask if they’re making too much or too little, or about the colour,” he says. “But it’s not like snot where those little things can tell us a lot.”
While earwax may not excite your doctor the way boogers do, there are still some things your ear goop can tell you about your health. Here are 6 of them.
It’s watery, and has a greenish tint: If you’ve been sweating, a watery discharge from your ear is probably the result of your perspiration leaking down into your ear and mixing with the wax, Comer says. But if you haven’t been sweating, and the watery wax is greenish or dark yellow, that could indicate an ear infection, he says.
It’s sticky, or dry: For all of us, it’s one or the other. And your type can provide clues to your genetic ancestry. Research appearing in the journal Nature Genetics finds most people of Asian descent have dry earwax, while people of African or European descent have sticky or “wet” wax. The authors of that study say this was a genetic adaptation to the climates in which our ancestors evolved.
It has a strong odour: You may have an infection or damage in the middle part of your ear. This can lead to a number of symptoms that, together, doctors refer to as “chronic otitis media.” One of those symptoms: “You could get a foul-smelling drainage from your ear,” Comer says. If your middle ear is messed up, you may also notice problems with your sense of balance, a ringing in your ears, or the sensation that your ear is full or blocked. See your doc.
You notice when it leaks out: Infections or tears inside your eardrum can lead to the formation of an abnormal skin growth called a “cholesteatoma,” Comer explains. “It’s a kind of a cyst-like structure that leads to debris from the ear filling up the ear canal.” Rather than the imperceptible discharge you’re used to, ear gunk may come out in a noticeable trickle or clump. Pressure and pain in your ear are also symptoms of a cholesteatoma.
You don’t seem to have any: If your earwax pulls a vanishing act—like, you don’t seem to make it any more—there’s a very small chance you have a rare and not-well-understood condition called “keratitis obturans,” Comer says. “Instead of coming out gradually on its own, the wax builds up inside your ear until you have this very hard plug,” he explains. On the off chance you have this going on in your ear, you’re likely to experience other symptoms like pain or fullness, he adds.
It’s flaky: You’re not sick. You’re just getting older. “As people age, the wax tends to get more flaky as opposed to like peanut butter,” Comer says. Don’t freak out. “Glands in general tend to dry out as we get older,” he explains.