Why You Should Avoid Cleaning Your Ears with Cotton Swabs

Most of us grew up cleaning our ears with cotton swabs (better known as Q-tips) and taught our children to clean their ears the same way. New research has unveiled that there are a lot of deep-rooted and serious risks with cleaning our ears in this way. It is important to understand the dangers of using Q-tips to clean out our ears and also learn new techniques to ensure our ears are clean and healthy, without exposing ourselves to potential risks in the process.

Why Ear Wax is Important

While we consider it gross, ear wax is actually really imperative to the health of our ears. Earwax plays many roles. Firstly, it helps to clean our ears by collecting dirt and debris and pushing it out of our ear canals. Ear wax also acts as a natural lubricant to keep our ears from drying out. Thirdly, ear wax is responsible for capturing dirt and debris and stopping it before it has a chance to enter our ear canals and potentially cause damage to our middle or inner ears.

Dangers of Cleaning Ears with Cotton Swabs

Cerumen Impaction

Cerumen impaction is an excess buildup of ear wax inside the ear canal. Our ears work to rid themselves of excess ear waxy pushing the unneeded wax our of our ear canal. When we stick cotton swabs into our ears in an attempt to pull the earwax out, what we can often end up doing instead is pushing the wax back down into their canal, causing a blockage. This can cause feelings of fullness in the ears, pain, ringing in the ears (tinnitus) and even hearing loss.

Irritation to Ear Canal

Cleaning your ears with cotton swabs attempting to clear your ear wax with other foreign objects (such paperclips or ear candles) has the potential to cause damage to your ear canal or the other structures of your middle or inner ear. The inner structures of our ears are very delicate. They could potentially become physically damaged or irritated with the repeated poking and prodding that comes along with cleaning our ears with cotton swabs.

Serious Infection

Perhaps most dangerous of all is the risk of serious infection when using cotton swabs to clean our ears. Take the case of an otherwise healthy 31-year-old man. After collapsing, he was rushed to the hospital by ambulance. While in the care of the emergency room, the patient experienced seizures, confusion, dizziness, and a state of altered consciousness. After much speculation and a CT scan – the root cause of the issue was discovered. The CT scan unveiled a puss-filled abscess in the tissue surrounding the man’s brain.

Assessment of the puss found that the cause of all the symptoms was a dangerous disease-causing bacterial pathogen. This threatening pathogen found its way inside of the man’s ear and towards his brain with the help of an unassuming Q-tip, as evidenced by a piece of cotton from a swab that had been inside of his head for months or even years. Luckily, after treatment with a round of extremely powerful antibiotics, he returned to normal after 8 weeks of consistent treatment.

How to Safely Clean Our Ears

Many people wonder how to safely clean our ears without the use of cotton swabs. However, it is important to note that not everyone needs to do any ear wax prevention at all. Earwax is not an issue unless it causes symptoms or irritation. You may want to talk to your hearing healthcare professional if you

  • experience symptoms of excess earwax
  • use hearing aids
  • are elderly
  • have a history of excess earwax production

As a result, they may have some ways you can safely clean your ears and prevent excess earwax. Earwax softening drops may be helpful for those who have not undergone any ear surgeries and have been cleared to use them by their ENT. Healthcare professionals also have the option to safely remove and irrigate the ears in their offices if they note an excess buildup has occurred. This is often done with a Video Otoscope. This is one of the safest ways to address any issues with buildup.

Hearing Group

Have you experienced changes in your hearing? If it’s been a while since your last hearing test, contact us at Hearing Group to schedule a consultation. We provide comprehensive hearing health services and can help you get on track to better hearing!

Jesse Hidalgo, BC-HIS

Jesse is Board Certified in Hearing Instruments and has built over 25 practices during his business career starting in 1998. Using his training in Hearing Instrument Sciences he has helped thousands of patients across those practices hear better.
Published: April 27, 2019
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