Sudden deafness without apparent reason is more apt to result from an accumulation of wax than from any other cause. It is a very common ear disorder. The opening into the ear is about an inch long, or a little more, and is separated from that part of the ear within, which is known as the middle ear, by the eardrum membrane. The drum membrane is a thin, skinlike membrane stretched tightly across the bottom of the external opening in the ear or auditory canal, and shuts it off completely from the middle ear within, and in this way protects the middle ear from the entrance of germs, dust, and water, but only secondarily aids hearing. The obstruction caused by wax usually exists in about the middle of the auditory canal or opening in the ear, and only causes deafness when it completely blocks this passage.
The deafness is sudden because, owing to the accidental entrance of water, the wax quickly swells and chokes the canal; or, in attempts to relieve irritation in the ear, the finger or some other object is thrust into the opening in the ear (auditory canal) and presses the wax down on the ear drum. The obstruction in the ear is usually a mixture of waxy secretion from the canal, and little scales of dead skin which become matted together in unwise efforts at cleansing the ear by introducing a twisted towel or some other object into the ear passage and there turning it about; or it may occur owing to disease of the ear altering the character of the natural secretion. In the normal state, the purpose of the wax is, apparently, to repel insects and to glue together the little flakes of cast off skin in the auditory canal, and these, catching on the hairs lining the canal, are thrown out of the ears upon the shoulders by the motion of the jaws in eating.
Nothing should be introduced into the ear with the idea of cleansing it, as the skin growing more rapidly from within tends naturally to push the dead portions out as required, and so the canal is self cleansing.
Symptoms. Sudden deafness in one ear usually calls the attention of the patient to an accumulation of wax. There is apt to be more or less wax in the other ear as well. Noises in the deaf ear and a feeling of pressure are also common. Among rarer symptoms are nausea and dizziness. But the only way to be sure that deafness is due to choking of the ear passage with wax is to see it. This is usually accomplished by a physician in the following way: he throws a good light from a mirror into a small tube introduced into the ear passage. This is, of course, impossible for laymen to do, but if the ear is drawn upward, backward, and outward, so as to straighten the canal, it may be possible for anyone to see a mass of yellowish brown or blackish material filling the passage. And in any event, if the wax cannot be seen, one is justified in treating the case as if it were present, if sudden deafness has occurred and competent medical aid is unobtainable, since no harm will be done if wax is absent, and, if it is present, the escape of wax will usually give immediate relief from the deafness and other symptoms.
Treatment. The wax is to be removed with a syringe and water as hot as can be comfortably borne. A hard rubber syringe having a piston, and holding from two teaspoonfuls to two tablespoonfuls, is to be employed the larger ones are better. The clothing should be protected from water by towels placed over the shoulder, and a basin is held under the ear to catch the water flowing out of the canal. The tip of the syringe is introduced just within the entrance of the ear, which is to be pulled backward and upward, and the stream of water directed with some force against the upper and back wall of the passage rather than directly down upon the wax. The water which is first returned is discolored, and then, on repeated syringing, little flakes of dry skin, with perhaps some wax adhering, may be seen floating on the top of the water which flows from the ear, and finally, after a longer or shorter period, a plug of wax becomes dislodged, and the whole trouble is over.
This is the rule, but sometimes the process is very long and tedious, only a little coming away at a time, and, rarely, dizziness and faintness will require the patient to lie down for a while. The water should always be removed from the ear after syringing by twisting a small wisp of absorbent cotton about the end of a small stick, as a toothpick, which has been dipped into water to make the cotton adhere. The tip of the toothpick, thus being thoroughly protected by dry cotton applied so tightly that there is no danger of it slipping off, while the ear is pulled backward and upward to straighten the canal, is gently pushed into the bottom of the canal and removed, and the process repeated with fresh cotton until it no longer returns moist. Finally a pledget of dry cotton should be loosely packed into the ear passage, and worn by the patient for twelve or twenty four hours.