Why we have wax

Basically every mammal with ears has it.  The weirdly gooey substance that slowly eeks its way out of the ear canals throughout the day turns out to be much more than an obstacle to hearing.  At the baseline, Ear wax is secreted by modified sweat glands and sebaceous glands.  It comes out in a loosely wax state, measuring around 60% Keratin (same stuff in your hair, nails and in animal horns), 12%+ of Fatty acids and alcohols, and 6ish% Cholesterol (the good kind, not the one that gets stuck in the veins).  The purpose of it is to clean out the ear canal as well as to seal it against water, bacteria and insects.  Without the thick layer of wax blocking the pathway into the ear, it is thought that infection and infestation would be substantially more of an issue.  Earwax itself actually gets produced several layers into the ear canal and is pushed forward in the tube largely by the motions of the jaw.  In essence, the motion of the jaw bone squeezes the cerumen (wax) deeper down the tube until it squirts out into the ear.

Ear wax is actually a genetic trait as well.  It has been found that people of European and African descent predominantly have a variety of earwax known as “moist type” cerumen (brownish golden goo of a roughly honey viscosity.  It’s wet, it’s wild, it’s genetic.)  Whereas Asian and Native American people are found to have “flaky type” cerumen. (looks more like small sheets, it’s more gray and dry.)  Following earwax types has actually been a method anthropologists have used to trace the migration routes of human cultures.  For example, wet type earwax is more common in a specific people within Japan, likely because of a migration of wet type people thousands of years ago who settled in among a flaky earwax majority.

The first real mention of medical treatment of excessive earwax was in a Roman text in the first century by Aulus Celsus.  He wrote about a smattering of ways to cure earaches, each with a special tincture that one needs to squirt into the ear.  No joke, there are at least a half dozen that include grinding up flowers, adding it to honey, possibly adding some radish, and then syringing it directly into the hole.  In my personal favorite example, he writes, “hot oil is poured in, or verdigris mixed with honey or leek juice or a little soda in honey wine. And when the crust has been separated from the ulceration, the ear is irrigated with tepid water, to make it easier for the crusts now disengaged to be withdrawn by the ear scoop” (De Medicina, Celsus, Book 6, 7:7)

For those of you wondering, The above image is of a Roman ear scoop. Basically a knife you wedge into your ear.

The treatment for heavy earwax hasn’t moved too far from the old Roman ways either.  Most treatments for too much earwax are somewhere along the lines of “irrigate heavily until better”.  In one particular moment of creativity, humanity decided the perfect response to giving your ear an enema would be to do the opposite; thus was ear candling born.  Basically described as “alternative medicine”, ear candling is the quack’s approach to ridding a patient of earwax through the reverse of irrigating with water: by using fire instead.  A tube made out of wood of some sort is placed inside the ear, the “doctor” (intentional quotations there) then lights it on fire and allows the flame to burn for a while, at which point the ear candle should have sucked out the impurities and waxes, likely it balances one’s auras as well.  Since 2007, medicinal experts have made it explicitly clear that ear candling is a bad idea.  On two occasions people have lit their homes on fire, one caused death, and on most other occasions, the ear candle just ends up dropping hot ashes into the ear canal rather than siphoning out the badness that it was intended to.

If you learn nothing else, just remember never to put fire INSIDE your ear.

http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/L/Roman/Texts/Celsus/6*.html#7.3 (this one is the Latin version if you feel frisky)

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ear_candling  (seriously.  This exists.  It’s worth a giggle)


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