Ear wax is a normal bodily secretion that many people don’t think much of, but it is an essential aspect of your ear and its overall health. Ear wax helps to moisten the ear canal, prevent particles from getting stuck in the canal, and help fight back against bacteria.
While ear wax is a beneficial substance to the proper functioning of the ear, the color, texture, and amount of wax can provide some valuable insight into your ear health and, potentially, your overall health.
Here is a closer look at the different colors of earwax, what they mean, as well as some other important information when it comes to the health of your ears.
How Does Ear Wax Work?
Ear wax and other bodily secretions like mucus function to help protect the orifices of the body. Mucus accomplishes this for the nasal passageway and helps to filter air and protect the nasal canal. The story is much the same when it comes to the ear, except it utilizes ear wax.
Below is a closer look at how earwax works in the body and what it can provide to your overall health.
Perhaps the most important function of ear wax is that it enables the ear canals to be self-cleansing. Ear wax at body temperature has a sticky quality. When it is in the ear canal, this sticky substance coats the walls of the ear canal.
The ear canal is about one inch long. If there was no earwax, dust, debris, and dead skin would be able to settle in the back of the ear canal and get stuck. Thanks to earwax, this debris gets caught on the surface of the canal and gets trapped in the wax.
While being able to trap the debris is critical, the ability to expel it from the ear is also important in enabling the ears to be self-cleansing. The fact that your body is constantly producing new earwax from special cells in the ear canal helps to push out old wax from the ear.
This is paired with the slight downward tilt of the ear canal. Additionally, the process of chewing aiding in the movement of wax helps to routinely allow the wax to reach the outer ear surface, where it tends to dry up and flake away.
Protect Against Infection
The other function of ear wax is that it helps to minimize the chances of getting an outer ear infection. The ear canals without ear wax would make an ideal home for bacteria since the canals are warm, dark, and away from the harsh external environment. When you add ear wax to the mix, it makes the ears less hospitable to bacteria.
The main reason for this is that ear wax has natural antimicrobial properties. Without ear wax, one would expect an individual to succumb to more outer ear infections. These infections are not only uncomfortable, but they can also result in damage if left untreated.
Moisturizing the Ear Canal
The last function of earwax is that it helps to keep the skin in the ear canal moisturized. When skin gets dry, it becomes irritated, which can be painful and lead to flakes of skin that come off.
Most people are able to produce enough ear wax to keep the canal moisturized. However, there are individuals who either don’t produce enough earwax or over-clean their ears which removes the protective waxy coating of ear wax.
Different Ear Wax Colors
Many people go their entire lives with earwax being one color while others can have it vary throughout their life. Either scenario can be entirely normal, but it is essential to know which variations in earwax color could mean potential trouble for your ears.
Here are some of the potential earwax colors you may encounter and what they could potentially mean.
Yellow/Orange Ear Wax
A standard earwax color tends to range from a clear yellow color to orange. These colors of earwax tend to indicate that your ear canals are in good working order and that they are effectively allowing earwax to be drained from the ear.
The pure color of earwax is a pale yellow color. When you notice this color ear wax, it tells you that it is fairly fresh and that the ears are doing a good job with self-cleaning. This includes effectively getting rid of the wax.
A more orange tint is still indicative of good ear health. The slight change in color tends to come as a result of more particles and debris getting caught in the wax, which simply means that the ear wax is doing its job.
Typically the darker ear wax gets, the more debris the wax has trapped. If you have been in a notably dirty environment like a coal mine or construction site, then it would be understandable that your ear wax may be slightly darker.
While a dirtier environment can contribute to the darkness of wax, the age of wax can also cause the wax to become darker. This is because the longer wax remains in the ear, the more particles it can trap. Slightly darker ear wax (like brown earwax tends) to be within the realm of normal ear functioning, but black ear wax may be a concern.
Black wax is typically indicative of old wax. Old wax can be of concern as it may indicate that the ears are not effectively removing ear wax, which can cause ear wax buildup. Some buildup is nothing of concern. Yet, if the wax stays in the ear long enough to turn black, you may want to go to either an ENT or audiologist specialist to rule out an ear wax impaction.
Ear wax impaction comes as a result of ear wax that is unable to be expelled and builds up to the point that it blocks the ear canal. When this occurs, you may experience a form of hearing loss known as conductive hearing loss in one ear. Or, you could even develop tinnitus due to the ear wax blockage.
Bloody Ear Wax
One form of earwax that you hopefully never run into is bloody earwax. With bloody ear wax, the blood tends to show up as streaks in regular ear wax. This color of earwax can be of concern because it points to an injury of the ear canal, eardrum, or severe ear injury.
One of the more common causes of bloody ear wax tends to be a ruptured eardrum. A ruptured eardrum is essentially a tear in the eardrum tissue, which decreases its ability to conduct sound and results in a bleed. A ruptured eardrum can lead to sudden hearing loss and should be checked out by a medical professional to determine if medical intervention is needed.
While a ruptured eardrum sounds terrible, in most cases the eardrum is able to heal all on its own. Simply taking extra precautions like ensuring water doesn't get in the ear and avoiding coughing or sneezing can allow it to heal properly.
Green Ear Wax
The last form of earwax you may run into is green ear wax. Green earwax is not a normal color of earwax. Oftentimes, this can be a sign of a severe ear infection. If you have ever had a severe infection that results in pus, you may be aware of the greenish color associated with pus. When this mixes with the ear, it results in green ear wax and should be checked by a doctor.
The green color from pus actually comes from an antimicrobial protein called myeloperoxidase which is synthesized by immune cells to fight infection. When there is enough wax for it to be visible, this could be an indication of an infection that has progressed. You should seek medical care. If left untreated, an ear infection could cause lasting damage and impact your ability to hear.
Ear wax is an important bodily secretion that helps to protect the ears from foreign particles, infection, and dryness. Naturally, ear wax is a pale yellow color. However, ear wax is capable of its own rainbow of shades that can provide you with information on critical health matters. The colors can indicate how well the wax is able to keep the ears clean, if you have an ear injury, or even if you have an ear infection.
Darker colors of earwax like black tend to indicate old ear wax, which may be of concern since the wax should be leaving the ear well before it turns black in color. If you have very dark ear wax, you may want to schedule an audiologist or ENT visit to rule out earwax impaction.
Human antimicrobial proteins in ear wax | NCBI
Impacted Earwax | Cedars-Sinai
Myeloperoxidase: Its role for host defense, inflammation, and neutrophil function | NCBI