Some, if not many people do not realize they shouldn’t clean their ears with cotton buds/swabs. People have been led to think that it's normal to clean their ears – they think that ear wax is dirty, that it's gross or unnecessary but that's not true at all."
Anyone in the medical field can tell you, they have seen many catastrophes resulting from using cotton swabs.
Cotton buds/swabs were developed in 1923 by Leo Gerstenzang. After observing his wife using wads of cotton on toothpicks to clean his baby's ears, he developed a cotton-tipped swab that he considered safer. The product was initially called Q-tips Baby Gays (Q for quality) and Q-tips survive to this day. The first instances of medical concern over the use of cotton buds were in 1972 with reports of tympanic membrane perforation, otitis externa and cerumen impaction. Manufacturers then advised against use of cotton buds in the external auditory canal. Nonetheless, cotton-bud-related injuries are a common reason for attendances at ear, nose and throat (ENT) referral clinics.
If your ears are blocked with wax it can be tempting to use a cotton bud/swabs to clean them out, but doing so could make your situation worse.
Even though it seems like you’re doing a good job of cleaning your ears with a swab because you see some wax come out, you’re mostly pushing the wax in further, as opposed to removing it. When we put cotton buds/swabs in our ears, the bud pushes the wax down the ear canal towards the eardrum and impacts it. If this build-up of earwax presses up against the skin of the eardrum, it can mean it doesn't vibrate as well and therefore cause hearing problems.
There are a number of items that people use to clean their ears. Some of the most interesting seen in the doctor’s office are:
Cotton swabs (Q-Tips)
Pens and pencils
The earpiece of glasses
While this is only a partial list, it's important to realize nothing should be placed inside the ear to remove dirt and debris.
The ear canal has specialized cells that produce cerumen, commonly known as ear wax. Ear wax can be likened to tears, which help lubricate and protect our eyeballs. Ear wax does something similar for the ear canal, where the skin is thin and fragile and highly susceptible to infection. The body produces ear wax to protect the ear canal. What you're taking out is supposed to be in there. There's a natural migration that carries the wax out when left alone.
Ear wax causes foreign bodies to adhere to it, preventing them from going further into the ear, and it has anti-bacterial properties. Removing it is like taking the wax off the surface of polished wooden furniture. It makes the delicate underlying skin of the ear more susceptible to infection.
The skin in your ears acts like a conveyor belt. It travels along your ear canal from your ear drum bringing any debris with it. If you use cotton buds or anything else to clean your ears, you can disrupt the ears' natural cleaning system. Often the only thing this achieves is to push wax further down the ear canal, making you feel deaf temporarily and causing damage to your ear canal or your ear drum. If your 'conveyor belt' isn't working and you experience a build-up of ear wax, the best thing to do is visit your doctor to have your ears cleaned out in a simple procedure.
Ear wax consists of a mixture of exfoliated skin and secretions and is produced in the outer third of the ear canal. Some people produce large amounts, which can affect hearing, especially if the wax becomes waterlogged and expands - after swimming, for example. For some people, ear wax accumulates much faster 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. While this may seem like an excellent alternative to spending countless minutes waiting in a doctor’s office waiting room, using a cotton swab may do more harm than good.
The eardrum is easily reached with a swab. Because the eardrum is so delicate, it can be easily ruptured by using even the gentlest of pressure when using a swab. Ask anyone who has experienced a punctured eardrum - it isn’t a pleasant experience. The pain is quite severe and the ear may also leak a clear fluid.
If you go too far down the ear canal with the swab, you can literally put a cotton-bud-sized hole in your eardrum. Dr. Christopher Chang, an otolaryngologist in Warrenton, Virginia, said that usually when he sees this it’s because the patient was cleaning her ear, and her boyfriend came into the bathroom, startling her and causing her to jerk her arm. Or she was multitasking and accidentally bumped her elbow into the wall.
The result: very sharp pain and bleeding. Hearing loss is not uncommon. The good news is that the vast majority of the time the body will heal the hole closed on its own. Depending on how big the hole is, it may close up completely in a week. More severe cases can take a couple months to heal, and in the worst-case scenario, surgery is required. If it happens to you, call a doctor right away and definitely don’t put any water in your ear because it could trigger an infection.
So this leaves us with the question, do we really need to clean out our ears? The answer is a little confusing, as both a “yes” and a “no,” are appropriate. The outer ear that can be seen does need a good cleaning every now and then. This can be accomplished with a little soap, water and a washcloth.
In most cases, the ear canal does not need to be cleaned. During hair washing or showers, enough water enters into 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 times the wax will loosen and fall out on its own while you are asleep. The need for a cotton swab isn’t really necessary.
For those that have heavy wax build-up, a trip to the doctor may be needed. Doctors can easily remove ear wax with a little peroxide mixed with water and injected into the ear. The process is virtually painless and is very effective in removing impacted wax. If this frequently becomes a problem, patients can ask their physicians for directions to do the procedure at home.
If you are experiencing wax or dirt build-up in your ears, contact your medical care professional for instructions on how to safely clean your ears. Never stick anything into your ear canal, including your own fingers. This could further impact the wax or damage the eardrum. As a good rule of thumb, if you aren’t sure if what you are doing is safe, contact a hearing health professional or a physician.
The little padded sticks have long been marketed as household staples, pitched for various kinds of beauty upkeep, arts and crafts, home-cleaning, and baby care. Few more detailed uses of cotton swabs are:
Lighting candles with short wicks
Have you ever blistered your fingers trying to light a short wick? No more! Simply dab the end of the bud in alcohol, use a match or lighter to light it, and hold it to the candle. The flame will melt the wax and reveal the wick.
Taking perfume on nights out
Lugging around a bulky bottle of Chanel No 5 in a teeny clutch can be such a slog. Avoid arm ache by dousing the ends of the buds in perfume and popping them into a re-sealable bag. Also works with eye shadow.
Cleaning lint out of hairdryer vents
A big problem, I know. But lint blocks the machine's airflow, so cleaning your dryer out regularly is recommended to ensure that it's functioning at full capacity.
Fixing stuck zips
Apply olive oil or shampoo to the teeth of the pesky zip, using (what else?) a trusty bud.
Cleaning computer keyboards
Computer keyboards reportedly harbour more germs than your average toilet seat. Dip a cotton bud in alcohol (the cleaning kind, not the drinking kind) and run it up and down the crevices of your keyboard to give it a good clean.
Cotton buds coated in Vaseline or lip salve make great DIY fire starters. Perfect for camping – but please use responsibly.
Brushing your cat's teeth
Or cleaning their eyes. Either way, cotton buds are handy for general pet face maintenance.
If you’re hooked on swabs, the best way to return your ears to their natural state is to quit using them. But this can be admittedly hard, especially if the inside part of the ear feels itchy. If the drum is not punctured, you can use a drop or two of mineral oil or baby oil to get rid of the itch and sensation.
Doctors say don't put anything smaller than your elbow in your ear. The reality is that you should not stick anything in your ear canals.
Since no matter what is said, some will keep cleaning their ears with cotton swabs, here’s how to do it without massacring yourself:
For one thing, be gentle. That soft cotton tip can leave grooves and scratches in the fragile skin.
As a rule of thumb, Dr. Christopher Chang said not to put the swab in so far that you can’t see the cotton anymore. The eardrum is only about 2 to 3 cm in from the opening of the ear canal. The first centimetre in is cartilage, which has a little give when you press against it, and the skin is slightly tougher there. After that, the canal is surrounded by bone. There’s no give there, and that’s where the eardrum connects, so consider it the danger zone. Conveniently, the cotton head on a cotton bud is about 1 cm long, so stopping there ought to keep you relatively safe.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that we’re condoning cleaning your ears this way. You should probably just let them be, and go to an ENT if the wax situation is getting out of hand.