Earwax in Babies
Can too much earwax cause problems?
Earwax, also known as cerumen, is a substance secreted by the sebaceous glands in the ears to help keep the ears clean, healthy and free of foreign particles. The function of the wax is to protect the delicate mechanisms of the inner ear from dust, dirt, pollen and other substances by trapping them before they reach this sensitive area. The wax also contains infection-fighting elements that protect the ear against bacterial and fungal infections. Earwax is continuously secreted and the normal process is for it to build up, dry out and then move to the outer ear, where it is washed away or falls out naturally. As it does so, it carries foreign particles with it, out of harm’s way. Sometimes, however, earwax accumulates faster than the body can expel it and this is when it can become a problem.
Can too much earwax in toddlers cause any problems?
Yes. A build up of earwax acts as a barrier to the sound waves travelling through the ear. When too much wax forms a plug, the waves are blocked and hearing can become muffled. Although this isn’t a problem in the short term, if left for a long time, it can impede a child’s speech development. Too much wax can also cause earache, as it can lead to a build-up of pressure in the ear that causes pain. Pain in the ear can also be a sign of an ear infection, so it can be difficult to tell at times whether your child has an infection or whether it’s just a case of a build-up of wax.
So how can I tell whether it’s an infection or just too much wax?
An earwax build-up does not cause the fever and difficulty with sleep that is associated with an ear infection. Often, there is a discharge from the ear in both conditions. If it’s just a build-up of wax, the drainage will be yellowy brown. If it’s an ear infection, the discharge will be clear, puss-like or tinged with blood. If you are concerned, you should make an appointment with your child’s doctor. They will have special instruments that allow them to make a better assessment of the situation.
How do you get rid of earwax buildup?
You should never introduce cotton buds into your child’s ear canal in an attempt to remove earwax. Not only do you run a risk of rupturing their tissue-thin eardrum, you are also likely to make the problem worse by pushing the wax further into the ear canal. The outer aspect of the ear canal has small hairs that point away from the inner ear and their function is to help move the wax along to the outside of the ear, where it is expelled. Using cotton buds can move the wax beyond these hairs, meaning that it will stay in the ear canal. You can remove visible wax on your child’s outer ear by wiping it away with a tissue or wet washcloth, but if you think he has wax buildup inside his ear, ask your doctor to have a look at it. They will be able to make a proper assessment with an auroscope – medical instrument consisting of a magnifying lens and light that is used for examining the external ear. If they see too much wax, they can either remove it with an instrument called a curette or by flushing it with warm liquid. If your child regularly produces too much earwax, the doctor might suggest simple rinsing treatments you can do at home and may also prescribe medication that will help to prevent any further buildup.