It’s Wimbledon time again. Which can only mean strawberries, cream, a bottle of factor 30 and a packet of anti-histamines.
Yes, while most of us eagerly await the chance to sup prosecco in the garden and watch the drama unfold on Centre Court, let’s spare a thought for the 1 in 5 for whom summer is one long procession of bulging sinuses, watering eyes and feeling as though Roger Federer has served an ace directly into our ears. Ouch!
While anti-histamines and eyewash can provide some relief from the symptoms of hay fever, earache is a much more persistent and troublesome companion. Although, when you understand why hay fever affects our ears, you can also understand how to go about treating it.
Why are ears affected by hay fever?
Most people associate watery eyes, runny noses and waxy ears with feeling unwell. But this is also how our bodies fend off allergenic pollen in the air.
Think about what happens when you get a regular fever. Your body raises its temperature to help your natural immune system kill off the bacteria and viruses. With hay fever, our bodies are performing a similar trick to stop allergens entering through our eyes, noses, ears and mouths. Just like a temperature however, the symptoms of hay fever are very unpleasant and sometimes a little intervention can be a big help.
The problem with treating earache like other symptoms of hay fever is that it isn’t made in response to your immune system’s production of histamine. That’s why anti-histamines can ease a runny nose or itchy skin but they won’t do a thing to alleviate pain or ringing in your ears.
The fact is, even if you could stop your ears producing earwax during a bout of hay fever, it wouldn’t actually solve the problem. Once the wax has built up into a plug, the only remedy is to have it removed in a safe and hygienic manner.
So what is earwax?
Before we look at treatments for tackling earwax problems, it helps to understand why it’s there in the first place.
Let’s be completely clear here. Earwax is totally healthy and vital to the normal functioning of your ears. Cerumen, to use its scientific name, creates a protective coating for the skin in your ear canal. It also helps to flush out dead calls, hair and dust, keeping your canals clean and clear.
Problems with earwax typically arise when the glands which produce cerumen go into overdrive, which is what happens when we’re suffering from hay fever. The result? Plugs of earwax that block the canal, resulting in a hardness of hearing, ringing in the ears or unpleasant feelings of fullness and even mild vertigo.
The 6 tell-tale signs of compacted earwax
- Difficulty hearing
- An ear infection
- A high-pitched ringing in your ear (tinnitus)
Other causes of earwax build up
Besides hay fever, some people start to have problems with earwax as they get older, especially men. The reason for this is because as we age, the glands that produce cerumen often become less effective at routine cleaning, which means earwax tends to become harder and more likely to form into a plug. Likewise, people who naturally have narrow or hairy ear canals are more prone to trouble with earwax.
As well as natural causes, there are also other things that can prevent your ear’s self-cleaning process working correctly. For example, cleaning your ears with cotton wool buds or hair pins usually pushes ear wax down the ear canal, which can compact it and create a blockage.
So just to recap, the 5 most common causes of excess earwax are:
- An allergic reaction – hay fever being the most common culprit
- Age – wax tends to get harder and builds up quicker
- You naturally produce a lot of wax – some people simply have more than they need
- Narrow or hairy ear canals – which are more prone to blockages
- Placing things in your ear – such as cotton wool buds which can push the wax further in
How to treat build-up of earwax
Whatever the cause, you have a few options when it comes to treating the build-up of earwax. The two methods I recommend and use regularly with my patients are microsuction and irrigation because they are safe, hygienic and painless.
Microsuction, as the name suggests involves using a small suction device to gently lift wax out of the ear canal. Irrigation uses a tiny nozzle to insert water into the ear and flush out the canal.
While the treatment is swift and unobtrusive, the results of treating earwax can be surprisingly large. As well as reducing unpleasant or uncomfortable sensations, research has shown that removing an earwax plug can improve hearing by 10 decibels. To put that in context, the difference between quiet whispering and normal conversation is about 20 decibels. Find out more about wax removal.
And please be aware that you should never EVER use a cotton bud to clean your ears as you will probably push the wax further in and risk damaging your very sensitive eardrum.
Are you suffering from earwax?
As audiologists, we’re here to help you enjoy your summer by beating earache. Game, set and match.
Book an appointment now.
About Sevenoaks Hearing
At Sevenoaks Hearing, we provide a bespoke hearing service, using state-of-the-art technology to provide an accurate diagnosis and an effective solution. As we are independent of any manufacturer, we can also provide the best solution for your lifestyle. Find out about our hearing assessments and other treatment services.
Written by Matt Canon, Lead Audiologist at Sevenoaks Hearing.
Visit our independent hearing centres in Sevenoaks, Banstead and East Grinstead or book an appointment now.