The Dangers Of Cleaning Your Ears With Cotton Buds

It’s tempting to clean or relieve an itch in the ears with a cotton bud - but this isn’t wise. The old adage of ‘don’t stick anything smaller in your ear than your elbow’ is a good one for many reasons.

Your ear canals are designed specifically to keep your eardrums safe and healthy.

 The length and shape of the ear canal (slightly bendy) helps keep foreign objects, and bacteria out of your ear. There’s a point, about a third of the way down your ear canal, where skin over cartilage becomes skin over bone and your ear canal narrows. Touching anywhere beyond this point is exceptionally painful - and that’s because nothing is meant to be pushed or prodded down that part of your ear.

Earwax moves naturally out of ears with jaw movement through chewing and talking. However some people feel they have excess wax and want to clean it away. Earwax is amazing and is there to keep your ears healthy. Apart from the shape of your ear canal, the earwax that’s secreted helps keep your ears clean by forming a natural barrier to bacteria and any insects that might want to crawl in.

Earwax is your personal ear lubrication, stopping your ears from becoming itchy. Think of tears and how they work to lubricate your eyes – same function different substance. Earwax is important.

However some ears over-produce wax and if that’s your ears, you might be tempted to pick up a cotton bud to clean it out. Let’s explore why this isn’t a good idea.

Danger No. 1 - Irritation

You actually don’t have earwax but an itchy ear. Using a cotton bud to ‘scratch that itch’ can cause the dry ear canal to become more irritated. Using the cotton bud might remove any small amount of protective wax, taking away its natural defence mechanism, setting up an environment for bacteria to thrive. If your ears are itchy, get your doctor to check the canals for eczema, dermatitis or otitis externa. If you have on outer ear skin condition, medical treatment may be required.

Danger No. 2 - Pushing Earwax Deeper

If you do have earwax and you go blindly poking around in your ear, (you can’t actually see what you’re doing, even if you look in a mirror), the likelihood of you pushing any earwax further down your ear canal is very high. Pushing the wax further down your ear canal will not only be painful but it can block off your ear, causing a temporary hearing loss. It also means that the wax will now be closer to your eardrum.

Your eardrum is a fragile membrane that plays an important part in your hearing. If you push the wax down towards your eardrum it can adhere or ‘stick’ to the membrane. If this happens, getting the wax out, even by a professional can be problematic.

Syringing or suctioning the wax out could mean the stuck wax tears a hole in the eardrum as it is sucked/syringed out. This will not only be painful, but also give you an extra problem of caring for an eardrum perforation while it heals.

Danger No. 3 - Accidents

While cleaning your ears with a cotton bud, an ‘accident’ occurs. You can slip, knock your arm or even have it knocked by someone else as you try and clean away the earwax that’s only doing its job – keeping your ears safe and clean. If the cotton bud is pushed too far into your ear via an accident, a number of things can (and do) occur.

Firstly, as discussed in Danger number 2, you can block your ears up by impacting the wax further down your ear canal. That’s a common occurrence, but so is pushing the cotton bud through your eardrum and causing a perforation. You’ll feel a significant amount of pain and perhaps see some blood and/or other fluid. This will cause a temporary hearing loss, while the eardrum perforation heals. Hopefully the damage to the ear drum isn’t bad enough to require surgery.

If the knock to the arm using the cotton bud is quite strong, an even worse scenario can occur. The cotton bud can be pushed far into the middle ear and cause damage to the bones and structures in this section. It may even pierce one of the very fine membranes that lead to the inner ear. If this happens, and fluid from the cochlea leaks out, you will have a permanent hearing loss.

So now would be a good time to head to your bathroom cabinet and throw away your cotton buds. If you do see wax on the outer part of your ear, it’s okay to wipe it away with a wash cloth – just don’t go pushing anything down your ear canal.

If you’re concerned with how much earwax you make, get your ear canals checked regularly and discuss with your doctor the best way to keep the earwax from blocking up your ear canal. Any temporary problem can usually be relieved easily and pain-free.

Cotton buds can only make your earwax issue worse, and perhaps lead to hearing problems and damaging parts of your hearing system.

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