Harvard Health Blog
Can you think of something you do that’s nearly irresistible, widely popular, but a bad idea that’s based on a health myth? That’s right, I’m talking about inserting cotton-tipped swabs into your ears.
According to guidelines from the American Academy of Otolaryngology/Head and Neck Surgery Foundation, experts strongly discourage twirling cotton-tipped swabs in the ears. Here’s why.
1. It’s unnecessary
The ear is self-cleaning. No routine maintenance is required. If you’re inserting swabs into your ears to remove earwax or prevent its buildup, think again. Earwax is produced within the ear canal and naturally migrates from deeper inside to outside. There are exceptions, of course. Some people make more than the average amount of earwax, and for others (especially older adults) it becomes harder and drier than usual. Even in these situations, inserting a swab inside the ear is not the answer. More on this in a moment.
2. It may be harmful
Inserting a cotton tipped swab (or anything else) into the ear can damage the ear canal or eardrum, or push earwax farther into the canal, making it harder to remove. This may cause a feeling of pressure in the ear and diminished hearing. Even worse, clumps of earwax pushed down near the eardrum can lead to painful ear infections.
3. Earwax is not a sign of poor hygiene
Here’s where there seems to be some misunderstanding. Earwax — the medical term is “cerumen” — is there for good reasons. Among other things, cerumen:
–is a natural moisturizer, preventing the skin inside the ear from becoming too dry
–traps dirt and dust before they can reach deep into the canal
–absorbs dead skin cells and debris
–prevents bacteria and other infectious organisms from reaching the inner ear.
Some people make more earwax, while others make less. The makeup of earwax varies depending on ethnicity, age, environment, and even diet. While there seems to be a certain “ick” factor associated with earwax, it’s not a reflection of uncleanliness; in fact, it’s a sign of normal, healthy ears.
What to do about “cerumenosis”
Buildup of earwax can cause symptoms. When it does, doctors call it “cerumenosis” and recommend over-the-counter ear drops that can soften earwax and allow it to exit the ear more easily (with gentle irrigation, such as during a shower). Or, a healthcare provider can look inside your ear and use instruments specifically designed to remove earwax.
There’s a reason the makers of cotton-tipped swabs put this warning on their packaging: “Do not insert swab into ear canal. Entering the ear canal could cause injury.” But, it still goes on. Perhaps it’s just too tempting or satisfying. Perhaps no one reads the labels of the products they use. Or maybe the myths about earwax are too ingrained to be easily dispelled by facts. Whatever the reasons, now you know to stop putting cotton-tipped swabs into your ears. And that also goes for unfolded paper clips, pen caps, or whatever else you’ve been using!
(Robert H. Shmerling, M.D., is faculty editor of Harvard Health Publications.)
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Erin O’Donnell is a freelance health and science writer, parent, and graduate of Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism. Walks by Lake Michigan make her happy.