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Cotton Swabs Can Cause More Problems Than You Imagined, Say Doctors - What Are Healthy Alternatives?

Susanna Sisson's picture
Cotton Swabs

Cotton swabs are actually dangerous, not only for the obvious reason they could cause perforation of the ear drum, but also because of something you may not have considered.


The seemingly innocuous cotton swab has many uses but their purchase is typically for use in cleaning the ear canal. We’ve all done it at one time or another – gotten in a hurry and pushed a swab deeper and faster into our ear than planned, causing agonizing pain. Did you stop to think that while we are trying to clean protective wax out of the ear we may actually be setting ourselves up for the formation of waxy plugs mixed with residual cotton fibers that harden, grow over time and can develop into large masses that become impacted causing temporary hearing loss and requiring a trip to the doctor for removal? See (Warning Graphic) VIDEO of ear plug removal.

Working as a nurse, I have seen things come out of ears that were horrifying – everything from live and dead bugs to rock hard impactions that seemed impossibly large for a tiny ear canal. I once had a patient whose impacted ear plug was growing black mold and had made him deathly ill.

The ear is comprised of the external ear, also called the pinna which is made of ridged cartilage and funnels sound into the ear canal to the tympanic membrane or ear drum, and internal structures. The middle ear is comprised of three tiny bones called the malleus, incus, and stapes which vibrate when sound waves enter the canal and percusses the ear drum. These sound wave vibrations continue to the inner ear and internal structures called the semicircular canals, vestibule, and cochlea which looks like a mono-valve seashell or the shell of a snail. Hair-like cilia act as acoustic sensors inside the ear and are responsible for mechanoelectrical stimulation and transfer of impulses to sensors in the brain. An inner Eustachian tube allows for equilibrium and pressure changes especially in the presence of fluid buildup.

The structure of the ear with regard to size and orientation within the skull changes as we age. Babies have shorter Eustachian tubes so are more prone to ear infections than older children, teens or adults due to fluid buildup within the tube.

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Why you shouldn’t clean your ears with swabs

Cerumen or earwax is protective in nature - keeping the ear canal lubricated and preventing it from filling up with water. Doctors agree cleaning the ears of this protective wax is unnecessary, and using cotton swabs often results in dozens of emergency room (ER) visits every day. Causing a cotton swab and wax buildup can have uncomfortable symptoms including pain, pressure, itchiness, ringing in the ear, difficulty hearing, odor or discharge and dizziness.

So, what do doctors recommend when it comes to managing earwax?

The ears are actually self-cleaning. As new skin grows out toward the outer ear it brings with it ear wax, so the only thing you need to do is clean the opening of the ear with a damp cloth during a shower. If you are a swimmer or wax buildup is severe, try using hydrogen peroxide to loosen ear wax. If wax buildup is bothersome, have your doctor clean your ears every few months.

Please SHARE with friends and family members to help them to be informed about these alternatives for cotton swabs.