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Why you shouldn't clean your ears with a cotton swab

Contributed by , associate editor for Healthy Hearing

Editor's note: This article was originally posted on April 4, 2011. Due to it's overwhelming popularity, we've updated it to republish today. Check out our companion article, where we discuss things you CAN do with cotton swabs!

There are some people that swear by sticking a cotton swab (Q-Tip) into their ears to remove excess wax and debris. Anyone in the medical field can tell you, they have seen many catastrophes resulting from using cotton swabs. From punctured eardrums to super impacted wax, there are many negative consequences associated with "do-it-yourself" ear cleaning.

There are a number of items that people use to clean their ears. Some of the most interesting seen in the doctor’s office: 

Many people do not realize you shouldn't clean 
your ears with cotton swabs. This could lead to
hearing loss, damage or more. 
  • Cotton swabs (Q-Tips)
  • Hair pins
  • Tweezers
  • Pens and pencils
  • Straws
  • Paper clips
  • Toys

While this is only a partial list, it's important to realize nothing should be placed inside the ear to remove dirt and debris. This is dangerous and could cause hearing loss or a damaged ear canal.

The ear canal has specialized cells that produce cerumen, commonly known as ear wax. For some people, ear wax accumulates much faster than others. This can lead to wax build-up that causes decreased ability to hear and in some instances, pain. As an easy way to avoid seeing a medical professional, many folks resort to using swabs to remove the excess wax. While this may seem like an excellent alternative to spending countless minutes waiting in a doctor’s office waiting room, using a cotton swab may do more harm than good.

The eardrum is easily reached with a swab. Because the eardrum is so delicate, it can be easily ruptured by using even the gentlest of pressure when using a swab. Ask anyone who has experienced a punctured eardrum - it isn’t a pleasant experience. The pain is quite severe and the ear may also leak a clear fluid. While a punctured eardrum will heal, it typically takes awhile and can even lead to conductive hearing loss.

So this leaves us with the question, do we really need to clean out our ears? The answer is a little confusing, as both a “yes” and a “no,” are appropriate. The outer ear that can be seen does need a good cleaning every now and then. This can be accomplished with a little soap, water and a washcloth.

In most cases, the ear canal does not need to be cleaned. During hair washing or showers, enough water enters into the ear canal to loosen the wax that has accumulated. Additionally, the skin in your ear canal naturally grows in an outward, spiral pattern. As it sloughs off, ear wax goes with it. Most of the time the wax will loosen and fall out on its own while you are asleep. The need for a cotton swab isn’t really necessary.

For those that have heavy wax build-up, a trip to the doctor may be needed. Doctors can easily remove ear wax with a little peroxide mixed with water and injected into the ear. The process is virtually painless and is very effective in removing impacted wax. If this frequently becomes a problem, patients can ask their physicians for directions to do the procedure at home.

If you are experiencing wax or dirt build-up in your ears, contact your medical care professional for instructions on how to safely clean your ears. Never stick anything into your ear canal, including your own fingers. This could further impact the wax or damage the eardrum. As a good rule of thumb, if you aren’t sure if what you are doing is safe, contact a hearing health professional or a physician.

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