What It Means When Your Ear Wax Stinks

Made up of dead skin cells, keratin, cholesterol, fatty acids, and more, our ear wax serves as a protective filter to help keep unwanted contaminants out of our ears (via Cleveland Clinic). In addition to intercepting dirt and dust, ear wax also protects the ear canal from infection and water exposure. Medically referred to as cerumen, normal ear wax may appear yellow, orange, off-white, or varying shades of brown.

In addition to being a healthy color, ear wax should also give off a healthy scent. While ear wax isn't particularly strong-smelling to begin with, experts at ENTLDN explain that you should still be able to pick up on a mildly sweet or musty odor. In some cases, this odor may become a bit more pungent or sour due to increased sweat production, such as right after an intense workout. Generally speaking, this kind of scent isn't usually cause for concern. If your ear wax starts taking on a more foul smell, however, there may be something deeper going on. 

Stinky ear wax could indicate a blockage

If your ear wax has become especially stinky, it may indicate an excess of cerumen has accumulated in your ear, explains the Cleveland Clinic. This can create a blockage, which may be accompanied by earache, hearing loss, tinnitus, and yes, a bad smell. Ear wax buildup isn't always within our control. Rather, it can occur as a result of injury, the development of scar tissue, or if a person's ears are particularly hairy. If you notice potential signs of ear wax impaction, reach out to your doctor, as they can help dislodge the buildup safely.

Another kind of blockage that may produce foul-smelling ear wax is a physical obstruction, reports Healthline. Young kids are more prone to these types of blockages as they may insert rocks, toy pieces, or food items into their ears. One 2018 study published in the Annals of the Royal College of Surgeons of England found that from 2010 to 2016, nearly 86% of hospital cases of foreign object removal from the ears were in children. Alternatively, funky-scented ear wax can also occur if a bug makes its way into our ears and becomes trapped in our ear wax. Those with a physical object lodged in their ear may also experience hearing loss, discomfort, or an infection.

Ear wax that gives off a bad smell may be a sign of infection

If there are no signs of ear wax impaction and no physical obstruction is present, smelly ear wax may instead be due to an infection (via Healthline). An infection may be the result of swimmer's ear, in which water becomes stuck in the ear and will require medical treatment. Alternatively, ear wax may begin to smell in the event of a bacterial or viral middle ear infection, a symptom of which can be odorous discharge. Adults may also experience pain or find that their hearing is impacted. Like swimmer's ear, middle ear infections should be treated by a physician. Be sure to reach out to your healthcare provider if symptoms persist for longer than 24 hours or if signs of a potential infection are observed in a child less than six months old.

Sometimes, however, smelly ear wax may not have anything to do with impaction, a blockage, or infection at all. While in rare cases it can be a symptom of a more serious medical condition, experts at Lemme Audiology Associates explain that ear wax contains a natural, scented chemical that helps keep bugs away. For some people, they simply have higher levels of this chemical.