A 31-year-old man from the United Kingdom was recently rushed to the hospital after he collapsed. The reason for his ill health was an ear infection, which had a rather unusual cause – he had an entire Q-tip lodged in his left ear. The infection triggered seizures and vomiting, among other symptoms. The story is reported in BMJ Case Reports.
The patient developed necrotizing otitis externa, something usually seen only in older people, especially those who are diabetic or immunocompromised. The condition is often caused by the common bacterium Pseudomonas aeruginosa and can become very dangerous. In some cases, it is lethal.
Using Q-tips may be a risk factor in the development of necrotizing otitis externa as it can damage the ear canal, but it has never been found to be the cause of the condition before. It is unknown how long the Q-tip was stuck in the man's ear, but he suffered from hearing loss in the affected ear for about five years.
On top of the infection, seizures, and vomiting, the patient also struggled with remembering people’s names in the days leading up to the deterioration of his condition. First, he was put on a course of antibiotics in case he had meningitis, a deadly brain infection. Then doctors put him under general anesthetic to have a look at what was going on inside his ear.
The medical team found that the ear canal was inflamed and filled with discharge. They also spotted the Q-tip. A CT scan showed abscesses present inside his skull. The ear was clear out and he was put on intravenous antibiotics. A week later, the abscesses had shrunk.
He continued to take medication for the following two months. About 10 weeks after his recovery, he had no symptoms and no neurological issues.
Q-tip manufacturers note that their products should not be used in the external auditory canal. This warning may just be the most ignored safety label in the world, at least according to the Internet. Hopefully, this grim story will make people think twice before sticking Q-tips in their ears.