Of all the cotton swab horror stories knocking around in medical journals and online news reports, few come more cringe-inducing than a recent anecdotal report in an Australian reality magazine – seriously, prepare your spine for a shudder. So are cotton swabs the harbinger of infections, injury, and other nastiness, or are these loyal wax removers simply misused?
Speaking to That's Life, a 37-year-old woman identified only as "Jasmine" explains how her obsessive cotton swab ear-cleaning left her with a life-threatening infection that eroded her skull and left her with hearing loss.
The woman claimed to have cleaned her ears using a Q-tip every single evening until one night – cringes at the ready – she noticed blood on the tip of the bud. It turned out, the overzealous use of cotton swabs had introduced an infection deep into her ear canal. While the exact nature of the ailment was revealed in the report, she claims doctors told her that the “skull bone behind the ear was paper-thin” and she was at risk of permanent hearing loss.
Granted, although similar cases have been documented, you are unlikely to obtain such a life-threatening illness from lightly cleaning your ears every month or so. However, there are some risks when it comes to stuffing cotton-tipped sticks down your ear canal.
A case report in 2017 found that over 263,300 children ended up in US hospital emergency departments between 1990 and 2010 thanks to injuries from using cotton-tipped swabs – that’s approximately 36 kids a day.
“[This] highlights the misconception that adults and children need to clean the ear canal in the home setting,” senior author Dr Kris Jatana, a pediatric ear, nose and throat surgeon at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Ohio, told Reuters in 2017. “While cotton-tipped applicators may seem harmless, there are certainly a lot of potential risks to using them to clean the ears.”
On top of physical trauma, Q-tips can also introduce external pathogens into the ear. Infections of the inner or middle ear can be especially worrying due to its proximity to the brain and vestibular system, which controls your balance.
Our ears are also effectively self-cleaning entities thanks to fluid properties of the wax itself, so there should be no need to clean them using cotton swabs. If you feel like your ears do need a clean, you're most likely suffering from a buildup of wax, an annoying but relatively harmless condition that can be easily treated without the need for Q-tips.
In other words, cotton swabs offer little to no medical benefit but do have the potential to pose a risk to your health. Besides any of this, cotton swabs are also bad news for the environment. While paper versions are available, most still use plastic and aren’t biodegradable. Since people incorrectly assume they can be flushed down the toilet, they can also make their ways into water systems and contribute to marine plastic pollution.