When you're little, your mom probably told you — repeatedly — not to forget to wash behind your ears when you took a bath. We always wondered why she did that. No one ever looks back there anyway, right?

Today, we're concentrating on the inside of the ears. Did you realize that your ears have a self-cleaning mechanism? It's true!

You know that brownish-greenish gunk you sometimes find in your ears? That's called "ear wax." It may look like dirt, but it actually helps keep your ears squeaky clean!

Ear wax — what doctors call "cerumen" (pronounced “sa-roo-men") — is made in the outer ear canal. That's the area just inside the fleshy part of the ear on the outside of your head. Special skin glands in that part of the ear secrete the sticky fluid we call ear wax.

Ear wax plays a very important role. It creates a waterproof lining that keeps the ear dry and prevents germs and bacteria from causing infections. Since it's sticky, it also traps dust and dirt that might otherwise block or irritate the eardrum.

Your ears constantly produce ear wax. As new ear wax is made, the old ear wax makes its way to the outer ear, where it either falls out or washes away during baths and showers.

Regular bathing is usually all that's needed to make sure your ears have a healthy level of ear wax.

Occasionally, ear wax may build up and create problems. If too much ear wax blocks sound waves, you may experience partial hearing loss.

Dried ear wax may also cause discomfort in the ears because the ear canals are very delicate. Because the ears share some nerves with the throat, ear wax can also cause you to feel a “tickle" in your throat that leads to coughing.

If you ever experience a problem with ear wax, be sure to consult a doctor. The ears are delicate, so you don't want to go poking and prodding them unless you know what you're doing. If you have problems repeatedly, ask your doctor to show you a few home remedies.

One final word of caution: Be careful with cotton swabs! Many people use them to clean their ears, but ear doctors warn that they can do more harm than good.

Using cotton swabs to clean the outer parts of the ear is fine, but sticking the swab into your ear can push ear wax farther into the ear canal, creating a problem rather than solving one.

As a wise man once said, “Don't put anything smaller than your elbow in your ear!"

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