Drop the Q-tip! Why ENTs are begging you to leave your ears alone

 

Earwax is your friend — embrace it. 

Turns out, earwax is nature’s ear soap. It lubricates the ear and carries away dead skin cells. It serves as a self-cleaning agent with protective, lubricating, and antibacterial properties. Without it, our ears become dry and itchy. 

Yet many of us are still dead set on removing earwax with a Q-Tip. 

The fact is, earwax is constantly being moved out of your ear. Assisted by chewing, jaw motion, and the growth of ear canal skin, wax is moved from the ear canal to the ear opening where it dries, flakes, and falls out. Earwax is only formed in the outer one-third of the ear canal, so when it does end up packed up against the eardrum, it’s sometimes because it has been pushed back there — by a foreign object. 

Is it Safe to Use Q-Tips in the Ear? 

There are many useful functions for cotton swabs — applying make-up, cleaning jewelry, spreading glue — cleaning ear canals is not one of them. For years, boxes of cotton swabs have carried a warning: "Do not insert inside the ear canal." And yet, people continue to try to clean their ears with Q-Tips.

Can a Q-Tip Cause an Ear Infection?

While people assume they are just keeping their ears tidy, using a cotton swab in their ear canal can cause damage and affect their hearing. Delicate ear drums can be perforated by a cotton swab — or any other long, narrow object. Using them to “clean” ears can cause Cerumen Impaction, otherwise known as ear wax build-up. Dr. Romaneschi, a partner at Sierra Nevada Ear, Nose & Throat, says, “Honestly, the ear canal should never be cleaned by a person. You can certainly wipe the outside of the ear, but you should never go inside the canal.” 

Here is what can happen when cotton swabs, or other objects push wax back down in the ear canal:

In 2012, the Medicare program paid out nearly $47 million to treat Cerumen Impaction — which in most cases was caused, or exacerbated, by the attempt to “clean” the ear canal with an object like a cotton swab. 

This is why Dr. Romaneschi, the American Academy of Otolaryngology and ENTs across the country advise you to stop inserting foreign objects into your ear canal to try and remove ear wax. 

How to Clean Ears without Q-Tips

If you experience sudden hearing loss, or one of the other symptoms described above, see an ear, nose and throat specialist. You could be experiencing earwax impaction, or you could have a more serious condition. An ENT doctor, like Dr. Romaneschi or the other ENT doctors at Sierra Nevada Ear, Nose & Throat, can properly diagnose and treat the problem. 

If ear wax removal is warranted, your doctor may recommend the following treatments: 

  • Manually removing the earwax using medical instruments and a microscope 
  • Prescription ear drops to soften the wax, enabling it to come out more easily 

If the above has not driven the point home, let us reiterate, don’t attempt to remove impacted earwax on your own. “Instead of inadvertently damaging the ear canal and not being effective in removing the wax, we strongly recommend seeing a medical professional,” says Romaneschi. “We’ve got the right tools for the job.” 

If you suspect you have earwax impaction, or have ear pain after cleaning with a Q-Tip, contact Sierra Nevada Ear, Nose & Throat team at 775.883.7666. They will assess your condition and provide effective treatment. 

 

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