James Le Fanu

‘For every problem there is a solution: neat, plausible and wrong’. H.L.Mencken

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Even earwax has its place in the grand order of things

AMONG my more regular patients is a distinguished barrister with a prosaic problem – an excessive production of earwax. The resulting deafness creates certain difficulties, as can be imagined, when he has to appear in court; so, four times a year he turns up to the surgery where I have the great satisfaction of syringing out his wax-blocked ears. In goes a stream of warm water under pressure, out comes a brown oily glob and, miraculously, his hearing is restored.

There is a reason for everything; even earwax has its place in the grand order of things. Its function is to protect the ear canal against the intrusion of bacteria and fungi. Its drawback (as my barrister patient knows only too well) is that it has to be produced in just the right amount – and the same applies to all natural secretions: mucus, tears, saliva, sweat and so on. Indeed, there is a litany of medical misfortune associated with their overproduction and, regrettably, few are as readily curable as wax-induced deafness.

The most troublesome undoubtedly is the mucus secreted by the sinuses which protects the lungs by moistening and trapping particulate matter in the air as it travels downwards. Too much mucus results in catarrh, which makes the head feel heavy, and drips down the back of the throat like infected glue, leaving a nasty taste in the mouth.

Catarrh can be very difficult to get rid off, although it can be induced by sensitivity to dairy products, as the daughter of Mrs Betty McKeggie from Derbyshire discovered by accident. "My daughter suffered badly from sinus problems in her teens and was prescribed a variety of drugs that did little for her," her mother writes. When the time came to find a flat of her own she was very short of money, and one of her little economies was to switch from full to skimmed milk, which was cheaper. She got through the winter without an attack of sinusitis. Her finances improved so she switched back to drinking whole milk – and back came the catarrh. The pleasing result of sticking to skimmed milk is that she has "lower milk bills, no prescription charges, no wasting doctor’s time and no sick leave".

Humans are not the only species vulnerable to milk-induced catarrh, as Doctor Layinka Swinburne has recently reported in The Lancet: "The patient, aged 15, has had a cough for at least five years and a constantly running nose with a discharge of thick mucus. Her voice became hoarse and she could only mouth her messages silently. Many therapies were tried but none had much affect. I realised that if she had two legs instead of four I would be considering a diagnosis of milk allergy. We stopped her daily treat of a saucer of cream and in 48 hours her nose dried up and she could purr without bringing on a bout of coughing."

The clear, watery secretions that keep the nasal passages moist may also be produced in excess, resulting in an embarrassing and annoying drip, just like a leaking tap that needs a new washer. The common allergy culprits are house-dust mites, or feather pillows, but the usual explanation is an imbalance of the action of the nerves that control the secretions. This can be corrected by a spray, Rinatec, that "turns off the tap". Alternatively, it has been reported that spectacles may be responsible by pressing on the nerve on the bridge of the nose. A reader from Hertfordshire reports that when putting his specs on first thing in the morning "the tap opens. Remove them and it stops". The obvious solution would seem to be contact lenses.

Finally, sweaty armpits and a damp handshake can blight one’s social life, as those unfortunate enough to perspire excessively from over-active sweat glands know. It was discovered by chance 70 years ago that applying an aluminium solution to the skin blocked the glands and reduced the sweating, which remains the mainstay of treatment in the form of Anhydrol Forte.

If this does not work, there may be no alternative other than to have a small operation to cut the nerves to the sweat glands.

So when it comes to natural secretions, there can be no doubt that too much of a good thing can be a confounded nuisance.

Copyright: Telegraph Group Ltd