One of the more common questions we get asked is whether the rumor is true: are Q-tips, those little cotton swabs with no other apparent purpose, actually harmful? And if so, how should ears be kept free of wax?
What Is Earwax, And Why Do We Have It?
Let’s start with the basics: earwax, formally known as cerumen, is a waxy, oily substance that is secreted by glands inside your ear canals. While people tend to think it’s gross, it’s actually good for you – it protects your ears in several ways. First, it traps any abrasive dust and debris that might otherwise get to your eardrums. (And yes, “debris” can include bugs!) Second, it has antibacterial properties, helping to prevent ear infections
Under normal circumstances, earwax will slowly move out of your ear canal on its own. The motion of your jaw (chewing, talking) helps it to move out, and the natural pattern of skin cell growth contributes as well. Wax is not produced by the deepest part of your ear canal, near the eardrum; the glands that produce it are only located in the outer part of the canal, and as the wax moves closer and closer to the entrance, it dries out and eventually falls out of your ear as tiny dry flakes – usually while you’re asleep.
Therefore, the surprising reality is that most people actually don’t need to clean their wax out at all! Ears take care of themselves. Of course, you’ll want to clean the outer part of your ear, where it’s visible to others, but in most cases, the inside of the ear canal can just be left alone.
What’s The Harm Of Q-tips?
First of all, if you do happen to have a buildup of wax in your ears, Q-tips probably won’t even remove it; in fact, it’s more likely that you’ll push the wax further down into your ears instead of removing it. I can remember a patient who came in for what he thought was a medical emergency: he’d been cleaning his ears with a Q-tip, and suddenly he couldn’t hear out of that ear! Luckily for him, he hadn’t actually hurt himself, but he had been repeatedly shoving his earwax back down into his ears, and on this day it reached a critical mass and became what’s called an impaction. That means a buildup of wax that fully blocks your ear, acts as an earplug and can be very difficult to remove. This patient was very grateful once his ear was finally clear, and you can bet he won’t be Q-tipping anymore in the future!
We have also seen patients who have had the tip of the swab come right off the stick and stay in their ear, stuck to the earwax. Imagine the surprise if you’re trying to clean your ears, but instead, you find that you’ve just put a big chunk of cotton in your ear!
Most importantly, you can also hurt yourself by using Q-tips in your ears. It’s pretty common to cause minor scrapes and bruises in the ear canal; these can be painful but will heal on their own. However, you can cause much more significant damage if you reach your eardrum! Most people won’t put the Q-tip that far into their ear on purpose, but we have seen numerous injuries caused by someone having their hand hit, say by someone opening the bathroom door, while they’re inserting the Q-tip into their ear. In these cases, the eardrum can suffer a traumatic rupture, and in the worst cases, the bones of the middle ear – which are critical for hearing properly – can be disarticulated or broken. This type of injury is not only very painful, but requires surgery to repair, and even with surgical treatment is likely to cause some degree of permanent hearing loss.
Safer Ways To Clean Your Ears
As previously stated, it’s usually unnecessary to clean the insides of your ears. Just take a wet washcloth over the tip of your finger and clean the entrance to the ear canal, and that’s enough. However, some people do build up more earwax than others, and wearing hearing aids, earplugs, or earbuds can actually exacerbate the problem – remember that earwax is a defense mechanism, so putting things into your ears can trigger wax production. If you do find that you need to clean out your ears, do NOT insert any type of swab, scoop, bobby pin, pen cap, or ANYTHING ELSE into your canal! Instead, you can use eardrops to soften up the wax and flush it out. Drugstores carry over-the-counter earwax removal kits consisting of eardrops and a squeeze bulb; you’ll let the eardrops soak in for several minutes, then use the squeeze bulb to flush the wax out with warm water. You may need to use the drops for several days in a row before the wax is soft enough to flush out, but it’s perfectly safe (the one exception is if you have a known perforation in your eardrum or PE tubes).
If you don’t want to buy a drugstore kit, or if you already have a squeeze bulb at home, you can also soften up your earwax with olive oil – yep, the stuff you already have in your kitchen! Just put a few drops of it into your ear and let it soak in for about ten minutes. Then, you can follow that up with a few drops of hydrogen peroxide; the agitation of the bubbles can loosen up that softened wax and get it out of there. You can also use that squeeze bulb to flush it out with warm water.
If you have a lot of stubborn wax in your ears, and eardrops aren’t doing the trick, you may need to have your ears professionally cleaned. Your primary care physician’s office can do this for you.