That cotton swabs, commonly known as Q-Tips, typically cause more harm than good? That’s right – medical training and clinical experience aside, I’ve seen multiple warnings on a variety of boxes that confirm even the company’s concern for improper use of these cotton swabs. Here are just a few I have seen:
“Warning – Do not insert swab into ear canal. Entering the ear canal could cause injury.”
“Surgeons General Warning: Improper use can cause inner-ear damage.”
“Caution: Do not enter ear canal. Entering ear canal could cause damage.”
“Common uses in the home: Baby care; health care; beauty care; pet care; crafts… Caution: Do not insert in ear canal.”
These warnings are scarcely read, better less followed.
Despite these warnings, you would be amazed how many people end up at their local ENT office with issues that were caused by these little, seemingly-harmless, cotton swabs. As you can see above, they have multiple safe uses around the home – I know I cannot go a day without my cotton swabs, but I use them as makeup assistants, not in my ear canals. When using these little wands for proper uses, they are perfectly safe. A person dismissing the warnings, using them in the exact way stated in the warning, can cause a great deal of damage to their own ear. Even WORSE! I’ve seen multiple patients in my office who use BOBBY PINS inside their ears! What?! This is the worst idea I have ever heard. This is not safe, not smart, and definitely intolerable in the ear and hearing world.
Think about it – Can you see inside your own ear? Do you have the training to know the anatomy and physiology of the external and middle ear space? Have you seen your ENT to ensure your anatomy is normal and intact? Do you understand the inherent positive functions of ear wax (cerumen)? If you answered “no” to any of these questions, common sense tells us it’s probably not a good idea to be sticking things inside that hole (even if you answered “yes” to most of the above, still not smart!).
You might be asking “well, how do I clean my ears?” The correct answer is “YOU don’t.” The best way to clean your ear canals is to visit your ENT physician or audiologist who can see inside your ear, and who is medically trained to remove it safely. Now, this is not an excuse to head up to your local pharmacy and purchase a wax candle, vacuum, or any other spoof on the market – this will only be a disservice to yourself. You will save yourself money, time, and discomfort by just doing it the proper way – visit a professional.
When you pull that cotton swab out of your ear, you see the yellowish gunk on the end. Most think “success!” Our medical training tells us “danger.” Huh? Well, yes, you pull out a tiny amount of ear wax on that cotton swab – it might look like a lot, but trust me, there’s plenty more in there. What you might not realize is that you’re pushing what’s left in your ear down farther and farther, and it will eventually become impacted, creating a seal of hard ear wax, impeding your ear drum to move properly. This can cause you to perceive hearing loss, pressure, fullness, etc. Hopefully you have not trapped water or something else behind this wax plug, which can create infections and strange sounds, requiring medical attention. This is just the tip of the iceberg on the damage one can cause by utilizing these little ear-enemies in the wrong way. You can rupture your ear drum (talk about pain!), or damage the bones inside your middle ear space, which both also require medical attention to repair. Trust me; you would rather take a trip into your ENT for an ear cleaning than an ear drum reconstruction or ossicular chain (the tiny bones in our middle ear) reconstruction.
The amount of ear wax in a person’s ear has little to do with hygiene. Our bodies produce it, and some bodies just naturally produce more than others. Let’s talk about why our bodies create this ear wax, or cerumen. This is not something that comes from the outside – our bodies create it – it’s meant to be there, and it actually serves multiple purposes for us:
- Repelling foreign bodies
- Repelling water
- Bacterial protection
- Cleaning ear canal – our canals slowly move dirt, debris, and dead skin cells outward toward the entrance of the canal by means of a process called “epithelial migration”
- Lubrication – helps prevent itching and extreme dryness
So, there are some benefits of ear wax! Yes, some people have ear wax that is unmanageable by the natural process – this is when you visit your ENT for removal. My take home message today is “Be safe!” Be good to your ears, and they will be good to you! Take the pledge: No more cotton swabs! Happy healthy ears!
Fun fact: “Many types of whales have a build-up of earwax which increases with time; the size of the deposit is sometimes the only way to determine the age of whales that do not have teeth.”
– Wikipedia via Craig S. Nelson. “What can you tell us about whale ear wax?”. Cs.ucf.edu. Retrieved 2010-06-20.