Health Advice Agnes Oblas

Every once in a while an ages-old adage proves to remain indisputably true. “Never stick anything smaller than your elbow in your ear” is one such adage. We have been taught that rule ever since we were young, but who among us would dare to stand up and say they have NEVER stuck a Q-Tip (or other such small object) into one’s ear to scratch an irresistible itch or to clean out some annoying wax? As mundane as this topic could be, it happens to pose a very common problem. So, let us talk about cerumen, the medical term for term for the sticky stuff we call earwax.

Why did Mother Nature provide the body with a substance that makes everyone turn their nose up with a “Yuck?” And why does everyone feel compelled to clean the wax away even though it actually serves a very useful purpose? What did people with ear wax problems do before the invention of Q-Tips?

Earwax is not really a wax but is a sticky substance secreted by glands found in the outer portion of the ear canals. The function of cerumen is to trap tiny bits of dirt or other tiny foreign materials and move this debris outward, away from the eardrum. It is the ear’s self-cleaning mechanism. Cerumen was meant to be sticky and to migrate outward where it typically dries, gets flakey, and either falls out onto our pillows during sleep or gets washed away when we bathe, shower, and wash our hair.

Q-Tips were created in 1923 when Leo Gerstenzang’s wife tried to clean their baby’s ears with a small wad of cotton stuck on the end of a toothpick. Gerstenzang took his wife’s brilliant idea and created the Q-Tip, as we know it today. What did people use prior to 1923? I have not a clue and I wonder if impacted cerumen was as common prior to 1923 as it is today.

When cerumen gets pushed inward (as with a Q-Tip) it will accumulate, eventually getting tamped in more and more until it is packed solid. This person might as well be wearing earplugs. The No. 1 reason for a sense of decreased hearing will be cerumenosis, or packed in earwax. Symptoms such as ringing in the ears, pain, or fullness can also be the result of cerumen impaction.

What is a person to do? First, do not stick anything smaller than your elbow into your ear. Second, if you have already developed the Q-Tip habit, try to modify it by resisting the urge to go any deeper into the ear canal than just at the opening. Third, if you believe you are not hearing as well as you used to, have one of us professionals take a look; it may simply be a build up of cerumen. This problem is easily remedied with a few drops of earwax softener followed by flushing it all out with warm water.


• Agnes Oblas is an adult nurse practitioner with a private practice and residence in Ahwatukee Foothills. For questions, or if there is a topic you would like her to address, call (602) 405-6320 or email Her website is

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