Earwax versus Mucus

Earwax versus Mucus

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Something I have wondered for a while is why have two different primary defense mediums, ie earwax and mucus, that perform the same function?

As far as I know, mucus and earwax are both part of the primary defense of an organism against disease and foreign particles, by trapping any pathogens or dust that enters the body.

My question is; Why does the body use earwax for ears and mucus for the lining of other entrances to the body, why not have mucus in the ears or earwax everywhere else? is there an advantage to have each medium in their respective places?

Unique and interesting question. It's hard to give a firm "why," but we can discuss the ways that the ear and other "holes" differ.

Mucous membranes line every tract into/out of the human body. Technically the ear is not a point of entry, as the tympanic membrane makes the external auditory canal a sort of blind pouch. The skin lining the ear is keratinzed skin. Most skin has keratin and is difficult to permeate. But mucous membranes are moist, thin, usually highly vascular, and generally easier to permeate. Disease often takes hold or gains entry at mucous membranes (respiratory infections, GI infections, etc). That is why mucus is so critical as it is protective and acts as a barrier and flushing-system.

Mucus requires some form of circulation, as it is a fluid. Once produced, usually at least some of the fluid is reabsorbed, and the remaining material is passed along until it exits the body. In the lungs, cilia bring it up to the throat and it is swallowed into the GI tract. In the nose, it drains down the back of the throat and is swallowed. In the eye, the fluid (which has mucus components to it) drains into a small tract that runs into the nasal passageway, which drains along with the other nasal mucus. Obviously saliva, which also has mucus components, is swallowed (2 liters a day of it, actually). In the genito-urinary tract, there is both reabsorption of some of the fluid components, but mainly flushing outwards when urinating. The GI tract reabsorbs almost all water components and the remnants pass with stool.

Mucus is produced by mucus glands. Cerumen (ear wax) is produced by sebaceous (oil) glands and apocrine (sweat) glands, but is primarily composed of shed skin cells from the ear canal. Sebaceous and apocrine glands are all over most of our exposed skin (except palms etc) so it stands to reason that they would be present in our ears as well.

Cerumen exits the ear several ways: all skin on the body sheds the top layers as new skin grows from underneath, and in the ear, the skin cells also migrate with a directionality from the tympanic membrane outwards. Head movements (like chewing) help dislodge things stuck to the walls.

I'll put in my plug here about NOT using cotton swabs (aka Q-tips) to clear your ears. It generally just pushes the wax deeper, except for the tiny bit you manage to get out. I've cleaned out tons of wax-impacted ear canals from people who use Qtips on themselves or their kids!!

If the ear were to use a mucous membrane system, the lower viscosity fluid would have to go somewhere. We would be weeping mucus from our ears unless there were a drainage system into the sinus passageways. The body conserves liquid, so we couldn't afford the constant fluid loss otherwise. The middle ear has a canal - the eustachean tube - which leads into the nasal sinus (although primarily to equalize pressure). But the external ear does not, so it's probably a good thing that we don't have mucous membranes in our ears.

The biology of mucus: Composition, synthesis and organization ☆

In this review we discuss mucus, the viscoelastic secretion from goblet or mucous producing cells that lines the epithelial surfaces of all organs exposed to the external world. Mucus is a complex aqueous fluid that owes its viscoelastic, lubricating and hydration properties to the glycoprotein mucin combined with electrolytes, lipids and other smaller proteins. Electron microscopy of mucosal surfaces reveals a highly convoluted surface with a network of fibers and pores of varying sizes. The major structural and functional component, mucin is a complex glycoprotein coded by about 20 mucin genes which produce a protein backbone having multiple tandem repeats of Serine, Threonine (ST repeats) where oligosaccharides are covalently O-linked. The N- and C-terminals of this apoprotein contain other domains with little or no glycosylation but rich in cysteines leading to dimerization and further multimerization via SS bonds. The synthesis of this complex protein starts in the endoplasmic reticulum with the formation of the apoprotein and is further modified via glycosylation in the cis and medial Golgi and packaged into mucin granules via Ca 2 + bridging of the negative charges on the oligosaccharide brush in the trans Golgi. The mucin granules fuse with the plasma membrane of the secretory cells and following activation by signaling molecules release Ca 2 + and undergo a dramatic change in volume due to hydration of the highly negatively charged polymer brush leading to exocytosis from the cells and forming the mucus layer. The rheological properties of mucus and its active component mucin and its mucoadhesivity are briefly discussed in light of their importance to mucosal drug delivery.

What is Mucus

Mucus refers to a slippery secretion from the lining of the mucous membranes. It is a colourless, slippery fluid produced by the epithelial linings of the body. Mucus is composed of 95% water, 3% proteins, and 1% salts. Before the release of the mucus from the mucous glands, the mucin droplets swell by absorbing water. The strands of mucus are formed by cross-linking, producing a sticky, elastic gel. Generally, the human body produces about 1 – 1.5 litres of mucus per day. The mucus becomes noticeable only when the production is increased due to different illnesses. The function of mucus layer of the respiratory epithelium is shown in figure 1.

Figure 1: Mucus Layer

The two basic functions of mucus are to provide protection and lubrication. The mucus layer serves as a physical barrier to most pathogens. The constant flushing movement of the mucus prevents the establishment of bacterial biofilms. Mucus also traps dust and smoke. Mucus secretions provide lubrication and serve as a moisturizing layer, preventing the drying out of the organs.

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Immune Response

When an infection develops, the immune system also responds by producing several substances and agents that are designed to attack the specific invading microorganisms (see Acquired Immunity). Examples are

Killer T cells (a type of white blood cell) that can recognize and kill the invading microorganism

Antibodies that target the specific invading microorganism

Antibodies attach to and immobilize microorganisms. They kill them outright or help neutrophils target and kill them.

How well the immune system defends the body against each microorganism depends partly on a person's genetic make-up.

Swimmer's Ear

You can treat a mild ear wax blockage at home by placing mineral oil, baby oil or an over-the-counter ear wax removal product in your ear. Placing warm water in the ear from a syringe or bulb may also help dislodge the impacted wax. The National Institutes of Health's Medline Plus website warns against using this method if you think your ear drum could be ruptured. Irrigating your ear when you have a ruptured ear drum could cause injury or an ear infection. Your doctor can remove impacted wax that you are unable to remove at home.

Doctors prescribe acidic ear drops that contain either an antifungal or antibiotic medication to kill bacteria and a steroid to relieve redness and inflammation due to swimmer's ear. In some cases, your doctor may remove excess ear wax or debris to allow the drops to penetrate your ear canal completely.

Diagnostic potential

We have seen that mucus is highly beneficial to our health when its structure and production are normal. However, there are times when people get sick and mucin production becomes abnormal. A sick person may be producing atypical mucus, which may manifest as changes in either the amount or structure of its constituent mucins. When mucin’s structure changes, its ability to dampen the virulence of pathogens can be weakened, or the strength (characterized by viscosity and fibrosity) of the mucus itself can change. In these cases, even though mucin may not be protecting us as effectively, it may be used as an indicator of an illness or increased susceptibility to disease. One example of using mucus as a diagnostic tool is the analysis (also done by Ribbeck’s group) of the structural properties of cervical mucus to assess the risk of pre-term birth. If cervical mucus is structurally weaker (thinner and more stretchy) and more permeable—which would allow more bacteria to travel through the mucus—then pregnant women have a higher risk of pre-term birth stronger mucus, on the other hand, indicates a lower risk of pre-term birth. Just by observing mucus, doctors can more accurately predict which pregnant women should be watched for pre-term birth.

What’s the Difference: Phlegm Versus Mucus

Even when you do not realize it, your body works behind the scenes 24/7 to keep you functioning. Mucus is one such silent partner invested in your well-being. Every day, the body’s mucous membranes secrete 1 to 1.5 liters of a clear, stringy fluid called mucus, most of which we never feel when we swallow.
People with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) or other chronic lung conditions often make and expel an oversupply of mucus and phlegm due to an increased number of mucous-producing cells and over-sized mucous glands in the airways.
After swallowing, the fluid left behind keeps airways and other essential organs well-hydrated. Mucus also functions as a protective filter. Just like an air filter that traps dirt, debris, dust and smoke moving through the air in a house, mucus traps the same foreign substances and bacteria moving through the air in the body.

3 Differences Between Phlegm and Mucus

In addition to “mucus,” you may also hear the word “phlegm.” Although the terms are used interchangeably, there are a few differences between them:

  • Mucus is a clear, stringy fluid produced by mucous glands in tissues lining the nose, mouth and throat.
  • Phlegm is a form of mucus produced by the lungs and lower respiratory tract. Phlegm indicates the presence of inflammation and irritation in the lungs and airways.
  • Mucus is more often expelled from the nose, while phlegm is expelled from the lungs via coughing.

The Phlegm and Mucus Cycle

The process of removing mucus and phlegm can become a vicious cycle if you are suffering from COPD:

  • Chronic lung disease causes airway inflammation, which spurs the production of phlegm in the respiratory tract.
  • This phlegm gets caught in the airways and makes breathing difficult, especially for lungs that are already working harder than normal to breathe.
  • The body uses coughing as a natural mechanism to remove excess mucus and phlegm. However, coughing irritates airway tissues even further and causes production of more phlegm in the lungs.
  • Over time, chronic mucus production that builds up in the respiratory tract can lead to a decline in lung function.

Changes in Mucus

Respiratory infections, sinus infections, bacterial infections, allergies, smoking and environmental toxins can trigger changes in the amount of mucus your body makes, as well as its color. If you have increased coughing and removal of mucus that is thick or discolored, you may be developing an infection or experiencing a COPD flare-up.
If you have a chronic lung disease, it is important that to keep your nose, throat, lungs and airways as clear of mucus and phlegm as possible. Infections and airway obstruction resulting from excess mucus and phlegm can increase your risk of exacerbations, hospitalizations and progression of a chronic lung condition.

Reducing Mucus From Chronic Lung Conditions with Cellular Therapy

At Lung Health Institute, we offer cellular therapy treatments that are designed to help reduce lung and airway inflammation. A decreased level of inflammation could help curb mucus production, which in turn could help you Breathe Easier™. Contact one of our patient coordinators today for more information or to schedule a free consultation.

Health Solutions From Our Sponsors

Medically reviewed by LaTonya B. Washington, MD Board Certification in Internal Medicine and Pediatrics

"Upper Respiratory Infection." Medscape.

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Serous: Serous gland is a constituent of salivary glands, producing a solution with proteins in an isotonic watery fluid.

Mucous: Mucous gland is a constituent of salivary glands, producing a slippery, aqueous secretion.

Nature of the Secretion

Serous: Serous produces a thin, watery secretion, comprising zymogens, antibodies, and inorganic ions.

Mucous: Mucous produces a thick, viscous secretion, comprising of mucin.

Nuclei of the Cells

Serous: The cells that make up the serous glands contain round, central nuclei.

Mucous: The cells that make up the mucous glands contain flattened nuclei against the basement membrane.


Serous: The cells in the serous glands contain dispersed chromatin.

Mucous: The cells in the mucous glands contain condensed chromatin.

Staining with H&E

Serous: Serous glands are stained in dark due to the presence of zymogens.

Mucous: Mucous glands are stained in light due to the presence of mucin.


Serous : Serous glands contain large, striated ducts.

Mucous: Mucous glands contain small, striated ducts.


Serous: The serous secretions are involved in solubilizing dry food, maintaining oral hygiene, and initiating starch digestion.

Mucous: The mucous secretions are involved in lubricating the oral cavity and making food into the slippery bolus.


Serous and mucous are two types of glands, which collectively make up the salivary glands. Serous glands secrete a protein-containing solution, which is involved in digesting starch and protecting oral cavity from pathogens like bacteria. Mucous glands secrete a thick solution with mucus, which is involved in lubricating food and oral cavity. Thus, the main difference between serous and mucous is in the composition of each secretion and their function in the oral cavity.


1. “Salivary Glands and Saliva.” VIVO Pathophysiology. N.p., n.d. Web. Available here. 09 July 2017.

Image Courtesy:

1. “Gray1021” By Henry Vandyke Carter – Henry Gray (1918) Anatomy of the Human Body (See “Book” section below) Gray’s Anatomy, Plate 1021 (Public Domain) via Commons Wikimedia
2. “Gray1026” By Henry Vandyke Carter – Henry Gray (1918) Anatomy of the Human Body (See “Book” section below) Gray’s Anatomy, Plate 1026 (Public Domain) via Commons Wikimedia

About the Author: Lakna

Lakna, a graduate in Molecular Biology & Biochemistry, is a Molecular Biologist and has a broad and keen interest in the discovery of nature related things

Watch the video: What These 8 Earwax Colors Say About Your Health (September 2022).