Ear Wax and Snot
It's That Time of Year!
I have worked with children for over 15 years, including having my own three boys. Over the years, I've seen many changes take place - teaching/learning methods, state regulations, and observation/assessment methods; however, one specific thing that has not changed is children and their health issues during flu season (December through May). Ear infections and runny noses are notorious for showing up more during the winter and early spring than any other time of the year. The question is why?
The fancy name for this waxy stuff is cerumen (say: suh-ROO-mun).
It's None of Your Ear's Wax!
Before getting into the issue of ear infections, the question, "What is ear wax, and why do we need it?" comes up. According to the American Academy of Otolaryngology–Head and Neck Surgery, ear wax is necessary for keeping the inside of the ear clean, moist, and for helping to fight off bacteria in the outer-third of the ear, ("What is Earwax?", 2014). Essentially, ear wax is necessary to keep foreign particles (i.e. dust, dirt) from entering the ear and to allow the ear to stay moist inside. Otherwise the ear would be itchy and dry. Technically, it plays the part of a trap-like agent to protect the ear drum from the world outside of the ear.
So when should ear wax be removed?
In an ideal world, there would never be a necessity to remove ear wax. However, not everything is ideal, is it? According to an article found on MedicineNet.com entitled "Ear Wax Cerumen", there are several reasons when ear wax removal becomes necessary. One reason would be the "narrowing of the ear canal resulting from infections or diseases of the skin, bones, or connective tissue". Another example of when to remove ear wax is when there is "production of a less fluid form of cerumen (more common in older persons due to aging of the glands that produce ear wax). One other time to remove ear wax is when there is "overproduction of cerumen in response to trauma or blockage within the ear canal".
When wax has accumulated so much that it blocks the ear canal (and interferes with hearing), a health-care professional may need to wash it out (known as lavage), remove it by suctioning, or remove it with special instruments. Alternatively, a doctor may prescribe ear drops that are designed to soften the wax (such as trolamine polypeptide oleate-ear drops [Cerumenex]).
- Medical Author: Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD
Healthy Ear Vs. Infected Ear
Ear infections: Causes, Symptoms, and Treatments
The development of ear wax does not have anything to do with ear infections. To put it simply, ear infections occur because of the development of bacteria, or a virus, within the inner ear. According to Tula Karras, and editor at WebMD,
Young children are susceptible to these infections in part because their eustachian tube, which connects the middle ear to the throat and nose, is underdeveloped and lies at a horizontal angle (it becomes more angled with age), easily clogging with fluid. Also, young children's immune systems are still developing, putting them at high risk for upper respiratory infections, which can lead to ear infections.
Sometimes it's easy to tell when a child has an ear infection - the crying and the holding of the ear makes it kind of obvious. But that is not always the case. For instance, my oldest son would get ear infections often, but we wouldn't know about it unless he started behaving in a way that wasn't his nature and if he developed a fever out of nowhere. Here are things to look for if you think your child is developing an ear infection:
- pain in the ear
- vomiting, diarrhea (infants)
- difficulty hearing
- crying when sucking
- loss of sleep/appetite
In some cases, the infection can be fought off on it's own. As with my own children, antibiotics were prescribed, but they would often build up a tolerance to the medication and eventually needed several sets of tubes. My oldest had so many sets that he now has scar tissue as an adult and continues to have problems with at least one of his ears. Tubes are usually beneficial in the long run, though, and eventually (as with my other two sons) the children grow out of the need for them.
What is a booger?
Southern E.N.T. Associates, Inc.
Young children have immature immune systems and are more prone to infections of the nose, sinus, and ears, especially in the first several years of life. These are most frequently caused by viral infections (colds), and they may be aggravated by allergies. However, when your child remains ill beyond the usual week to ten days, a serious sinus infection is likely.
You can reduce the risk of sinus infections for your child by reducing exposure to known allergens and pollutants such as tobacco smoke, reducing his/her time at day care, and treating stomach acid reflux disease.
Catch That Runny Nose!
As with ear wax, snot is necessary for keeping the nose moist and for stopping dirt and other particles from going to the throat and lungs. As a child begins to develop a cold, or allergy, the mucous increases to continue focusing on this purpose as other parts of the immune system fight off the infection, or allergen. Basically, snot is a soldier that doesn't fight on the front lines.
According to Susan Louisa Montauk, M.D, a professor of clinical family medicine at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine and writer of "Why Does My Nose Run When I Have a Cold?",
When a head cold invades, The Defensive Protector (snot) ramps things up a notch or 10. And an increase in mucus brings with it an increase in antiseptic enzymes and immunoglobulins (antibodies). The fighter-filled fluid washes out some of the germs.
if mucus is protective, why not just keep our suffering noses flowing to the max? That would be because plenty of germs avoid its defenses. Other parts of the immune system are what really take care of the cold.
Plus, not only does that wonderful mucus not get you well any sooner, but it can be downright annoying and sometimes keep you from sleeping. So, if a relatively safe medication dries up a nose and allows for much-needed rest, it might be worth considering.
Although even thinking about ear wax and snot can gross you out, there really is a purpose for both. Before you go blowing your child's nose, or digging in your child's ears, make sure you know what you're doing and how it can affect your child's health.