cotton-tipped swabs

Ear, nose and throat specialists like to caution us never to stick anything smaller than our elbows in our ears. It seems too many of us don’t pay close enough attention, however, especially when it comes to cotton-tipped swabs.

What Are the Hazards of Cotton-Tipped Swabs?

A new report in JAMA Otolaryngology Head & Neck Surgery confirms the traditional warning (Carniol et al, JAMA Otolaryngology Head & Neck Surgery, online Dec. 21, 2017). Researchers reviewed medical records of ear injuries reported to emergency departments between 2010 and 2014. They were specifically searching for cases of eardrum perforations.

In more than half of the cases they found, the eardrum injury was caused by sticking something into the ear. Roughly 45 percent of these cases were due to cotton-tipped swabs.

How Should You Clean Your Ears?

The authors emphasize that such applicators should never be used to clean the ears. Instead, they recommend using a damp washcloth after a bath or shower. Earwax is water soluble and concentrated in the outer third of the ear, and washcloths are not involved in eardrum injuries.

Previous Warnings:

This is not the first time investigators have reported that cotton-tipped swabs can injure the ears. Researchers focusing specifically on children’s ear injuries implicated these applicators in 2017 (Ameen et al, Journal of Pediatrics, July 2017).

Get The Graedons' Favorite Home Remedies Health Guide for FREE

Join our daily email newsletter with breaking health news, prescription drug information, home remedies AND you'll get a copy of our brand new full-length health guide — for FREE!

  1. Soli

    I have been cleaning or rather dewatering my ears after a shower since I was about 12. I am now 69. If one is very careful and twirl it around gently and not go deep, I think it works well. However, if I had to do it all over again, I would use my finger wrapped around a towel and tip my ears down and gently shake my finger around. It works as well in almost all cases. The way I do it now has caused it to become a habit which feels good to the nerves in the ear. Practice what I preach…don’t do what I do!

  2. Debbie

    Has any body noticed, how small the cotton on the “Q Tips’ have become ?
    When I was a student nurse, we had to Make” Q Tips

    get some cotton balls and unravel the and roll the fluffy cotton around the existing Q tip, till you won’t feel the Tooth pick any more.

    I have used these all my life, and, like the 73 year old lady, I make sure, I am alone, when using them,
    Never had any problem.

  3. greg

    After lap swimming I use them with 40% alcohol on them. It dries the water out in seconds. Other than going around all day with my ears stopped up, that is what works. Been doing it nineteen years and 7+ million yds.

  4. Anne
    Bakersfield, Ca.

    I have been using cotton Q-Tips all my life, and I’m 73. I only use them when I am alone in the bathroom so there is no chance that someone will accidentally run into me or knock my arm while I am using them. I am extremely careful when using them and have never had a problem with them. I am very gentle and use them after I shower.

  5. Vonnie
    So. IL.

    I only use individually wrapped STERILE cotton tipped applicators in my ears after I shower and shampoo. I do it very carefully and never have itchy ears or ear infections, which I was plagued with in my younger days.

    • Terry Graedon

      That doesn’t address the problem, which is mechanical. The ear doctors consider cotton-tipped applicators, sterile or not, too dangerous.

  6. Virginia

    For Jerry, with the itchy ears, try anti-fungal cream for awhile. So often itching is cause by fungus and most MDs just do not think of it. Just a little around the ear canal but NOT to the ear drum.

  7. Jerry B

    Cotton swabs are the best thing to stop itching in the ear. I put ring stop on the swab and rotate it about inside my ear. I would love to not do this but no doctor has come up with a cure for itching in the ear. I’ve tried all they have suggested and none work.

    • Karel

      I complained to my ENT about itchy ears. I also confessed to using cotton swabs to dry my ears after showering AND to apply a dab of baby oil for the itching. He said the swabs irritate my ears, which makes them itch. I doubted this, since I am very gentle with their use. BUT. I must say that since I reluctantly stopped using swabs, the itching has not only drastically subsided, it’s almost non-existent.

  8. David
    Columbia, MO

    I had a Q tip come off in my ear and became infected. To get it out, the ENT Dr. had to use a vacuum and that was one of the most painful experiences I’ve had. I haven’t used one since on my ears, and that was almost 20 years ago. STAY AWAY FROM COTTEN SWABS FOR CLEANING YOUR EARS.

  9. Dennis
    Mukilteo, WA

    I was told I create more ear wax then most people. I also know that using the cotton swab may push the wax further back in the ear canal. However, cleaning my ears with the over the counter drops and squeeze bulb is difficult. Is there another solution or brand of ear cleaner that works.

    I also use hearing aids which pick up the ear wax and I have constant itching with the hearing aids installed.

  10. Bob

    I had ear infections one after anoter when I was in college and the doctor told me to dry my ears after showers and to cover them in cold windy weather. My infections stopped after using Q-tips though I am careful not to push the tip too close to the ear drum.

What Do You Think?

We invite you to share your thoughts with others, but remember that our comment section is a public forum. Please do not use your full first and last name if you want to keep details of your medical history anonymous. A first name and last initial or a pseudonym is acceptable. Advice from other commenters on this website is not a substitute for medical attention. Do not stop any medicine without checking with the prescriber. Stopping medication suddenly could result in serious harm. We expect comments to be civil in tone and language. By commenting, you agree to abide by our commenting policy and website terms & conditions. Comments that do not follow these policies will not be posted. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Your cart

Shipping and discount codes are added at checkout.