Why you should never clean your ears with a cotton swab or Q-Tip
Cotton swabs may seem harmless enough, but they can be dangerous when used to clean your ears. Although some people swear by using cotton swabs (Q-Tips™) to remove excess earwax and debris from their ear canals, medical experts advise you not to try it.
Why is it bad to use Q-Tips in your ears?
Doctors and hearing care specialists have seen many medical catastrophes resulting from using cotton swabs. From punctured eardrums to super impacted earwax, there are many negative consequences associated with "do-it-yourself" ear cleaning.
Weird things people put in ears
Our informal poll of hearing care providers revealed that their patients all too often put unusual or harmful things in their ears, including:
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. Here's why:
Cotton swabs can cause impacted earwax
The ear canal has specialized cells that produce cerumen, commonly known as earwax. Earwax accumulates much faster for some people 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, causing more harm than good. Why? Because the cotton swab merely pushes more against the eardrum, rather than removing it. This is also a common cause of clogged ears.
Don't risk a painful perforated eardrum
The eardrum is easily reached with a swab. Because the eardrum is so delicate, it can be easily ruptured by using even the gentlest pressure when using a swab. Ask anyone who has experienced a punctured eardrum—it isn’t a pleasant experience. The ear pain is severe and the ear may also leak a clear fluid. While a punctured eardrum will heal, it can take a while and can even lead to temporary conductive hearing loss.
If you've been poking around in your ear and develop sudden pain, drainage, tinnitus or hearing loss, see a doctor. You may have perforated your eardrum, which can become infected or heal improperly.
How to safely clean your ears
The outer ear, also known as the pinna, benefits from a good cleaning every now and then. This can be accomplished with a little soap, water and a washcloth while you shower. Be gentle.
In most cases, the ear canal does not need to be cleaned. During hair washing or showers, enough water enters 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 necessary.
What should I do if I have impacted earwax?
For those who have heavy wax build-up, a trip to the doctor may be needed. Doctors can easily remove earwax with a little peroxide mixed with water and injected into the ear.
Some hearing specialists offer ear irrigation and cleaning. The process is virtually painless and is effective at removing impacted wax. If excess wax become a frequent problem, ask your physician how you can do the procedure yourself at home.
What if something else is stuck in my ear?
It's fairly common for bugs, earrings, hearing aid tips and other foreign objects to fall into the ear canal and get stuck. You can cause harm if you do not remove them promptly—and properly. Here's what to do if you have a bug or other object stuck in your ear.
What if I wear hearing aids?
Your hearing care provider can offer guidance on your specific ear issues, such as how to clean your ears. It's important to regularly remove earwax from your hearing aids, too.
If you need a hearing care provider
If you are experiencing significant wax build up in your ear canals, or if you think wax could be affecting your hearing, our directory can help you find a hearing clinic near you. A hearing care provider can look inside your ear using an otoscope, assess the situation and determine the best course of action.