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Cleaning Your Ears With Cotton Swabs Can Land You in the ER

While it might be one of the best feelings of the world to clean your ears with a cotton swab, doctors and hearing specialists all agree: cotton swabs have no reason whatsoever to enter your ear canal. In fact, using Q-tips cotton swabs sends 34 children to the ER every single day according to a new study in The Journal of Pediatrics. My ears hurt and itch just thinking about it.

The original cotton swab, the Q-Tip, was invented in 1923 by Polish-American Leo Gerstenzang after he watched his wife (probably with undeniable horror) attach cotton balls to toothpicks to clean their baby’s ears. The product was first called “Baby Gays” but was changed to the brand name Q-tips, meaning “quality tips”. The traditional cotton swab has a single tip on a wooden handle. These are still in practice in medical settings to collect micro bacterial cultures and for first aid. The home-version of personal care cotton swabs are shorter in length, double-tipped and are made with plastic or rolled paper.

And while it may feel good to clean the ear with Q-tips, no medical benefits have been noted from removing waxy buildup from your ears. Ear wax, medically known as cerumen, is a naturally occurring product which lubricates and cleans the ear canal and protects the ear from bacteria, fungi, insects, and water. However, if you jab a cotton tip applicator into your ear there is a chance for it to push the ear wax deeper into the canal or worse, injure the eardrum.

The study showed that in the 21-year period they researched (from 1990 to 2010), an estimated 263,000 patients under age 18 were treated in the ER for complaints with ear blockage, pain, and bleeding –all of it from cotton swabs. 77% of the injuries happened from the children trying to clean their own ears, only 24% of the injuries were caused by a parent or sibling using the Q-tip and hurting the child.

Dr. Jatana, the author of the study, recommends that ear wax should only be cleaned when it is visible in the outer part of the ear. A quick swipe with a baby wipe or wet towel is all your ear needs to stay clean. The American Academy of Otolaryngology—Head and Neck Surgery Foundation, shares, “Do know that ear wax is normal,” “Don’t over-clean your ears,” and “Don’t put cotton swabs, hairpins, car keys, toothpicks or other things in your ear.” Ouch.

Read: Surgeon’s Picture Goes Viral After Sewing Up Patient’s Teddy Bear

Lyndsay Burginger is a food and lifestyle writer as well as the Managing Editor of Wide Open Eats. Lyndsay has worked for companies such as America's Test Kitchen and Disney, and holds degrees in Creative Writing and Culinary Arts. When she's not writing or cooking you can find Lyndsay traveling ...Read more
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