Latest posts by Jeff Baller, Au.D., CCC-A (see all)
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As children we learned that it was important to clean behind and inside our ears, and the most common tool was the cotton swab. These double-sided cotton tufts are attached to a wand of plastic or hard paper, and they are useful for many purposes, including cleaning hard-to-reach surfaces of objects, applying hydrogen peroxide to a scrape, and makeup application or removal. Although these tools are handy to keep around for a number of purposes, ear cleaning should be stricken from the list for good.
Cotton swabs are not helpful for cleaning the ears. Not only do they force earwax further inside to the sensitive areas of the inner ear, they can cause permanent damage to hearing and even injury. The temptation to put cotton swabs inside the ear canal may be irresistible to some, but the following cautionary tales should be enough to sway your inclinations away from cotton swabs for good.
The Dangers of Cotton Swabs
A recently published case study details an incident with an unnamed 31-year-old man who came to the emergency room after having collapsed. Upon arrival the man suffered from seizures, drowsiness, confusion, and an overall altered state of consciousness. Under closer investigation, he went on to report that he had been suffering from headaches and nausea lately. Furthermore, he had been having trouble remembering names, pointing the doctors toward a neurological condition. When the doctors asked him more about his symptoms, he revealed something even more telling; he had been suffering from ear pain and intermittent hearing loss for a full 5 years.
What could have caused such a puzzling nexus of symptoms? A CT scan revealed that a pus-filled abscess was located up against his brain, connecting to discharge coming from one of his ears. The external auditory canal had a serious infection that was seeping into the brain, and a debilitating strain of bacteria had taken up residence there: Pseudomonas aeruginosa. No doubt you have already surmised the way that bacteria had found its way into the brain. A piece of a cotton swab had come loose inside the ear canal and remained lodged there. Just like otitis media, or swimmer’s ear, a foreign body or liquid within the ear can be a breeding ground for dangerous bacteria. The good news is that the doctors were able to remove the piece of cotton from the man’s ear, and they subjected him to eight weeks of serious antibiotic treatment. And, according to the study authors, “Most importantly, he is no longer using cotton buds to clean his ears!”
Although this condition is rare indeed, there are many other dangers associated with using a cotton swab to clear the ears. Earwax is a crucial substance to maintain the health and cleanliness of the ears. Though we might view the sight of earwax as “unclean,” it actually has exactly the opposite function in the body. By trapping harmful substances, debris, and microbes before they can enter the ear canal, earwax completes the crucial function of protecting the ears from danger. Yet, stuffing that earwax far inside the ear canal with a cotton swab causes serious risks to the organs of the ears as well as hearing ability. When earwax is forced deep inside the ears, it can become impacted, obstructing the hearing function or even trapping those foreign microbes in the ear canal, just where they don’t belong.
Wiping the outer ear with a cloth or tissue is no problem at all, and of course you will want to remove unsightly earwax from view. Yet, anything that gets close to the ear canal can spell danger for the sensitive ears.
If you are concerned that earwax may be building up unnecessarily, the right course of action is to schedule an appointment with us at Professional Hearing Services. Our hearing healthcare providers are able to diagnose the earwax situation and either complete a professional cleaning or recommend another course of action.
On the other hand, you may not have a problem of earwax build-up at all. No matter the course of treatment they recommend, steer clear of those enticing cotton swabs. You may end up with ear damage or, as we have just seen, much worse!