Dangers of Q-Tips and Cotton Swabs

man with qtip in hand

Dangers of Q-Tips and Cotton Swabs

Despite the warnings on the box, many people still use Q-tips and cotton swabs to clean their ears. While using a cotton swab to clean the outer crevices of the ears is a safe practice, using a cotton swab to clean your ear canal can be dangerous. 

Are Q-tips bad for your ears? According to a study published in The Journal of Emergency Medicine in October 2017, 40% of ruptured eardrums occur from cleaning the ears of wax with cotton swabs. Ruptured eardrums are painful and can lead to hearing loss and further infections.

There are several reasons to avoid using Q-tips and cotton swabs in your ears, and learning how to clean ears without Q-tips can protect your long-term ear health.

Are Q-Tips Bad for Your Ear?

In addition to accidentally rupturing your eardrum using a cotton swab, these tools can damage or infect your eardrum in other ways. 

Hair follicles line the ear canal, which also contains glands that create and secrete cerumen, a waxy oil commonly called earwax. However, it’s only produced in the outer half of the ear canal since the wax isn’t supposed to reach the eardrum.

However, when you use cotton swabs to remove earwax, only some of the wax comes out. The rest may push down the ear canal past where the body naturally releases it. Over time, the earwax pushed into the canal builds up, impacting the eardrum, causing hearing issues, and making the ear more susceptible to infection.

Why Is Earwax Important for the Ear?

Even if you consider earwax undesirable, it still provides critical benefits for your ear health. When you don’t interfere with earwax, it can perform its functions, and eventually, the body removes the wax on its own. 

Earwax Keeps the Ear Moisturized

Earwax is the ears’ moisturizer and provides your ear canal with a protective coating. When you repeatedly remove earwax from your ear canal with cotton swabs, your ear may become itchy or develop flaky, irritated skin. The irritation increases your risk of developing an infection in your ear.

Earwax Fights Off Infections

Bacteria thrive in warm, moist protein rich-environments. Therefore, when water becomes trapped in the ear, it becomes more susceptible to conditions like staph infections. 

However, earwax repels water and contains infection-fighting properties. In addition, earwax’s antimicrobial peptides prevent infections from bacteria and fungi in the ear canal. 

Earwax Acts as a Shield for the Eardrum

Earwax’s ultimate purpose is to protect the eardrum. It coats the ear canal, protecting the skin. Additionally, since earwax is sticky, it collects dust, debris, and even bugs, keeping these outside invaders from entering the ear and bringing bacteria and dirt to the eardrum.

Alternatives to Using Q-Tips to Remove Excess Earwax

Patients with tubes in their ears or who may have an ear infection or ruptured eardrum should not try to clear their ears. Fortunately, the ears are generally self-cleaning. 

The ear canal produces earwax to protect your ear, and as you chew, talk, and move your jaws, the movement pushes old earwax out of the canal and into your ear’s outer opening. Once pushed to the edges of the canal, earwax dries up and falls out.

However, sometimes earwax can build up in the ear, creating feelings of fullness, like your ear is plugged or you’re hearing is muffled. In these cases, you may try cleaning the ears of wax. Some tips explaining how to clean ears without Q-tips include:

Using Drops 

Over-the-counter ear drops often contain alcohol or hydrogen peroxide and can prevent earwax buildup when used as directed. Alternatively, tiny drops of hydrogen peroxide in the ears can help hardened wax break down and come out independently.

Soften and Irrigate

Alternatively, you can soften earwax using a few drops of mineral, baby, or olive oil. You can put a couple of drops of oil in the ears twice a day for a few days. Once the wax softens, use a bulb syringe filled with warm or lukewarm water to flush squirt water into the ear canal. 

Pull your outer ear up and back as you flush the canal while tilting your treated ear up. When you stop flushing the ear, tilt it down so any excess water and wax can flow into a sink or bowl.

You may need to repeat this treatment multiple times or visit your audiologist if it isn’t completely clearing excess wax. 

Protecting Your Ears

Earwax is not your enemy. It’s a multi-function tool that works to protect your ear from damage, infection, and irritation. If you experience a buildup of earwax, you can skip the Q-tips and cotton swabs and try softening the wax and irrigating your ears. 

If you’re experiencing pain, feelings of fullness in the ear, or hearing loss, your audiologist can determine whether earwax impaction is the cause. If you’re in the greater Phoenix, AZ area then Happy Ears Hearing Center has you covered. Make an appointment at one of three locations – Peoria, Surprise, or Mesa, AZ.