Health All The Amazing Things Your Ear Wax Can Tell You About Your Health  

Beth Elias
19.4k views 15 items

Ear wax is one of those bodily substances that gets a bad rap. We shove Q-tips in our ear canals trying to get the sticky stuff out, when really, ear wax is there to help us. Your health affects your ear wax, meaning that there are some pretty amazing things ear wax can tell you about your health - that is, if you're willing to pay attention and not get grossed out. 

Shakespeare may have said that "he has not so much brain as ear wax," but don't let that sway your opinion (though that is a good insult to have in your back pocket). Too much ear wax is definitely a bad thing, but the color and consistency of your ear wax can tell you valuable information about your health. What is normal and what's reason to run to the ear doctor? And should you try to remedy your ear problems at home?

If it seems crazy that ear wax harbors information about the rest of your body, just remember that your tongue can tell you about your health, too - and so can your poop

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Photo: UncleBucko/flickr/CC BY-NC 2.0

Ear Candles Are A Thing; No, They Do Not Work

Let's get this out of the way - ear candling does not work, and you should not stick a candle in your ear. 

Ear candles aren't just any old taper candle that you can find in your dining room. They're actually hollow candles that are made of cloth and then soaked in wax to function as candles. You insert one end into your ear, light the other end, and wait for the heat from the candle to melt your ear wax. The idea is that this will remove any blockage of wax. And while the candle will indeed melt the wax, it's not going to do anything to remove the buildup. There's no vacuum effect that will magically suck out the excess wax. 

If that's not convincing enough, do you really want to have an open flame inches from your face?

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Photo: HuttyMcphoo/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 2.5

Please Stop Sticking Q-Tips In Your Ear

The Q-tip box literally says not to stick them in your ear, and yet we continue to do it anyway. 

Not only should you not want to remove your ear wax, but you should also not make it a practice to stick something down your ear. Though you may think that you're nowhere near your ear drum, experts say that's almost certainly not the case - if the cotton swab is in there, you're probably dangerously close to your ear drum. If you've ever seen the Girls episode where Lena Dunham goes to the ER with a Q-tip in her ear, let that serve as your warning. You really, really don't want to rupture your ear drum.

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Photo: David Shankbone/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 3.0

Your Ear And Your Armpit Are Related

The same gene that affects your ear wax's color and consistency also affects what your underarms smell like. Doctors know that the scent of your underarms can tell some valuable information about your health, so logic would follow that your ear wax can do the same. 

As researchers figure out just exactly what ear wax can tell us, we already know that it can alert us to two pretty serious conditions. One is called maple syrup urine disease (yes, because it makes your urine smell like maple syrup). It's a serious metabolic problem, and it can be detected in your ear wax before it can be detected in your urine. The other is called black urine disease, affecting how your body breaks down amino acids. And yes, it does turn your urine black. 

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Photo:  Wikimedia Commons/NOAA Fisheries/Public Domain

Scientists Study The Great Blue Whale's Ear Wax

First off, yes, blue whales do have ear wax. Scientists removed some ear wax, presumably quite a bit of it, from a blue whale and were able to learn a litany of things. For example, they could tell when the whale had been stressed, because it is possible to detect cortisol levels in a whale's ear wax. The ear wax also holds information about contaminated water that the whale had been in - and it can even tell when the body began releasing testosterone as the whale grew into adulthood. Though humans are constantly getting rid of earwax and making more to replace it, whales keep accumulating earwax over their lifetimes, meaning that we can tell exactly when an event happened in a whale's life.