That sounds kind of funny, but it’s actually good advice, said otolaryngologist Craig Jones, MD. And yet, people continue to put Q-tips into their ears, sometimes deep into their ears.
“It’s something that people feel like they have to do,” he said. “We’ll see adults who use them all the time. We’ll see parents who use them on their children because they think it’s a hygiene practice.”
His advice: Don’t put anything in the ear canal.
The problem, he said, is that many patients think earwax (technically known as cerumen) is some kind of dirt.
“Earwax is made on purpose by the ear,” he said. “Just like the eye makes tears, the ear makes wax. The wax helps decrease the chance of a bacterial or fungal infection. It does have a purpose.”
Skin from the ear canal will migrate out, and as it grows, it will carry the wax with it, he said. The wax will slowly move from inside to the outer part of the ear, where it deposits on the outside of the ear.
“I tell people to clean the part of the ear that’s visible,” Dr. Jones said.
The Wax Gets Pushed In
The problem with putting a Q-tip in the ear canal is it tends to push the earwax in, instead of removing it, he said. You can push it in pretty far, and it tends to make a ball of wax that you can’t see, which can end up blocking the hearing.
“You don’t realize that you’re blocking the hearing because it’s one of those insidious things that builds up slowly over time,” he said.
Another problem when you use a Q-tip is you’re getting rid of areas of a protective layer of wax, according to Dr. Jones. You can create little micro-abrasions in the ear canal and the bacteria that are normally found in the ear can then become established.
“On the Cape, we see a lot of swimmer’s ear, and you’re much more likely to get swimmer’s ear if you use Q-tips than if you don’t use Q-tips,” he said.
He’s Seen Many Injuries
Here’s another risk that comes with putting a cotton swab (the generic name for the product that most of us call Q-tips) in your ear: If it goes in too far, it can damage the ear drum.
This can happen if a parent is using a swab to clean a child’s ear, but Dr. Jones described some ways swabs can accidentally cause an injury.
“Sometimes people leave a Q-tip in their ear to absorb water after a shower,” he said. “Then the phone rings and they put the phone up to the ear and rupture the eardrum. Or they’re next to the door in the bathroom and someone opens the door and it hits the Q-tip. I’ve seen multiple occasions with badly damaged ear drums under those circumstances.”
Some people use Q-tips to relieve an itch in their ear, but Dr. Jones said that’s not a good practice.
“Earwax actually helps to prevent you from getting an itchy ear,” he said. “The more you use a Q-tip, the more you have itchy ears. There’s a pattern where the person almost becomes addicted to the Q-tip. They’re getting itchy because they’re using the Q-tip. If they could stop using the Q-tip, the itching would get away.”
A few patients fall into a special category, he said.
“Some people do make a ton of earwax and they need to have their ears cleaned, just like some people produce a lot of tartar and they have to go to the dentist regularly,” he said. “In many cases, it’s people who use Q-tips regularly. If they stop using Q-tips, it stops being a problem.”
Using an over-the-counter treatment is not an option, since none work reliably, said Dr. Jones.
There’s a container of cotton swabs in my bathroom and here’s what it says on the back side of the package: “Caution: Do not enter ear canal. Use only as directed. Entering the ear canal could cause injury. Keep out of reach of children. To clean ears, stroke swab gently around the outer surface of the ear.”
So in three different ways, it’s saying, “don’t stick these in your ear.” Can’t say we haven’t been warned.