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Keep Cotton Swabs Out of Your Ears

Are cotton swabs the best way to clean your inner ear? No, according to the authors of a new study at Henry Ford Hospital, who report on a direct relationship between using cotton swabs and ruptured eardrums.


Choose a safer way to clean your ears

The old adage about not putting anything smaller than your elbow into your ear may come to mind when reviewing the findings of this new study, which was presented on April 29 at the Combined Otolaryngology Spring Meeting in Chicago. Co-author Ilaaf Darrat, MD, an otolaryngologist at Henry Ford Hospital, reported on ruptured eardrums and the need for surgery.

In addition to noting an association between use of cotton swabs and ruptured eardrums (also known as tympanic membrane perforations, or TMPs), the authors also pointed out some good news: 97 percent of cases of TMPs heal on their own within two months.

A ruptured eardrum is a tear in the tympanic membrane, which separate the outer ear from the inner ear. An eardrum can rupture for many reasons, including an ear infection, poking a foreign object into the ear, such as a cotton swab or bobby pin, barotrauma (when the pressures inside and outside the ear are not equal as when a plane suddenly changes altitude), head injury, slap to the ear, and sudden loud noise, such as an explosion.

Also see: Clean Your Ear Without Cotton Buds: How Not To Do It

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A ruptured eardrum may be accompanied by sharp ear pain, an earache, ear drainage, ear ringing or buzzing, dizziness, or hearing loss. In severe cases, vertigo and facial paralysis can occur.

The study involved 1,540 patients who had been diagnosed with a ruptured eardrum from 2001 to 2010. Individuals who had suffered a cotton swab injury were then divided into two groups: observation and surgery. A successful outcome was defined as a healed tympanic membrane, elimination or improvement of vertigo, ringing of the ears, or facial nerve paralysis, and/or closure of the air-bone gap.

The investigators found that most TMPs resolve without surgery, although patients who suffer with an associated neurological problem such as facial nerve paralysis require surgery to fix the eardrum. Surgery is generally successful, and the authors concluded that follow-up testing should be conducted to determine if there is any hearing loss caused by the rupture.

To safely clean your ears without using cotton swabs, study co-author Michael Seidman, MD, FACS, director of the division of otologic and neurotologic surgery at Henry Ford Hospital, made the following suggestions:

  • Mix equal amounts of cool peroxide and hot tap water and wait until it reaches room temperature. Irrigate your ears once or twice a month
  • Mix equal amounts of vinegar and tap water and place 4 to 5 drops in each ear once a week using an eye dropper
  • Use an over-the-counter ear wax removal product and follow the directions carefully
  • Ask your doctor to remove ear wax for you

The results of the Henry Ford Hospital study support your mother’s advice: don’t put anything larger than your elbow into your ear, and that includes cotton swabs.

Henry Ford Health System



What happens when one has cotton swab in ear. How to remove it? Thank you.
Hi. Removing cotton from a child's ear can be harmful to the child if you don't know how to do it properly, so if there is ANY question or problem, you should see a professional. I'm not a physician but I can refer you to instructions on what to do, using an ear syringe (see http://www.ehow.com/how_7846260_remove-qtip-cotton-ears.html). The ear is a very sensitive area and you want to avoid damaging your child's ear and hearing.