While Q-tips might be one of the most commonly found objects in people’s medicine cabinet, right alongside band-aids for cuts and scrapes and cotton swabs for makeup removal, these seemingly harmless cotton buds are garnering some cautions from ear, nose, and throat doctors.
The words of warning follow numerous cases of damage caused by people sticking these seemingly harmless things in their ears. These doctors have two simple messages that we’ll share with you:
First, learn to love, or at least live with, your earwax; and second, don’t put anything smaller than your elbow in your ear (no, we’re just being clever; don’t go sticking your elbows in your ears!).
You might think it’s gross to just leave them alone, but specialists want the general public to change the way they see their ears. As Professor Tony Wright of the University College of London’s Ear Institute told The Guardian, “Wax is good stuff.”
Hard as it is to believe, what might seem to you to be dirty gunk actually has an important function in protecting your ears from foreign bodies. “It’s protective. It’s sticky, it stops things crawling in, it’s waterproof, antibacterial and antifungal,” Wright explains.
As for Q-tips, studies and observation from ENT offices have shown that they often do more harm than good. As Dr. James Battey of the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders explained to CNN, “For those with impacted ear wax, the use of cotton-tipped swabs may push the earwax deeper into the ear canal and harm the eardrum.”
In fact, AAO Head and Neck Surgery strongly advises patients not to put anything inside the ear, including “cotton swabs, hair pins, car keys, toothpicks, or other things.”
They remind overzealous cleaners, “These can all injure your ear and may cause a cut in your ear canal, poke a hole in your ear drum, or hurt the hearing bones, leading to hearing loss, dizziness, ringing, and other symptoms of ear injury.”
While doctors definitely recommend avoiding using Q-tips, syringes, or ear candles inside the ear, they encourage people to use less invasive methods of keeping their ears clean.
Dr. Seth Schwartz, chairman of a panel of ENT doctors writing guidelines for AAO-Head and Neck Surgery, offers a reminder, “Wiping away any excess wax when it comes to the outside of the ear is enough to keep it clean.”
Ordinarily, most people’s ears do a very good job of regulating themselves without any help. The normal actions of talking and chewing, as well as skin growth within the ear canal, are enough to push out old earwax to be washed off in the shower or bathtub, according to CNN.
There is, however, such a thing as having too much earwax, especially when it becomes impacted, preventing the ears’ normal expulsion process and hearing. In this case, the last thing you want to do is go in with a Q-tip, as this will only push the blockage in further, potentially causing serious damage.
Instead, doctors recommend safer options like using droppers with mineral oils or hydrogen peroxide to soften blockages before having them professionally flushed with warm water.
Another safe way to minimize unsightly but harmless earwax is to regularly clean your outer ears in the shower with soap and water. Once again, don’t go overboard and start sticking things inside. If you ears are giving you real trouble, don’t delay; go to your doctor as soon as possible.