cotton swabs

There are few things in the bathroom medicine chest that look less scary that cotton swabs. They have no sharp blades like nail scissors. They don’t contain potentially dangerous drugs, like cough medicine or pain relievers do. And yet every year people injure themselves with these tiny sticks with fluff on their ends. Many of the injuries are in children, but adults can become injured as well.

A Cotton Swab Injury:

Q. I had the cotton tip of a swab come off in my ear. It became infected and the ENT doctor had to use a vacuum to get it out. That was the most painful experience of my life. Do not use cotton swabs for cleaning your ears!

Swabs and Eardrum Injuries:

A. Researchers have found that cotton-tipped swabs are often associated with eardrum injuries (Carniol et al, JAMA Otolaryngology Head & Neck Surgery, online Dec. 21, 2017).  In some instances, children injured themselves trying to use the swabs as they’d seen adults do. Instead of these applicators, experts advise cleaning the ear with a washcloth. They point out that earwax is water-soluble and manufactured in the outer third of the ear canal.

Cotton Swabs and Kids:

This is not the first report on the hazards of cotton swabs. Earlier in 2017, researchers reported on the numbers of children treated in emergency departments every year due to applicator accidents (Ameen et al, Pediatrics, July 2017).

About 12,500 children are treated in emergency departments annually for problems caused by cotton tip applicators. Often the effect of trying to clean the ears is simply to push the wax down into the ear canal. Using them in the ears can also cause injuries, including perforated eardrums.

Most of the problems occurred when children were trying to clean their own ears. The senior author emphasizes that cotton swabs should never be used to clean anyone’s ears and they should definitely be kept out of children’s reach.

What Can You Use Instead?

The investigators point out that ears clean themselves naturally. Just wiping with a damp washcloth after a bath or shower should be sufficient. If that is not enough, they recommend gentle irrigation. Parents should ask the pediatrician to demonstrate the proper technique.

Annie has written:

“My late husband was a very experienced General Practitioner and each year saw a significant number of ear injuries, particularly in children, caused by cleaning ears with cotton buds.

“His advice to parents (and adult patients) was ‘Never put anything smaller than your elbow in your ear.’ Heed this and you will never suffer an ear canal injury.”

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  1. Shalbhadra B

    Irrigation is only to be done at DR’s office not self– soaked swabs gentle use no time to show heroism with cotton swabs in ear–learn anatomy of ear by google search and all set- carelessness is the rpoblem

  2. Shalbhadra Bafna MD

    Cotton swabs; use good company swabs and dip in hydrogen peroxide or 70% alcohol and the use slowly in ears will feel if it is going near ear drum so avoid that and no problem using dry swab will leave cotton threads in ear no good—cotton threads will accumulate and create problem so NO

  3. Gail

    I have intense itching in my ears – the only thing that helps is to use a q tip. I know it is a toss up due to potential injury . Any suggestions ?

    • Janet

      Concerning intense itching ears: I was told every time I shower to use swim ear or something similar in my ears. I just use rubbing alcohol and have never had itching ears since then.

    • Marilyn

      For Gail,

      My ear canals tickled for years, occasionally itching. I finally figured out that as I got older I was moisturizing my increasingly dry skin everywhere but there. I use the tip of my little finger to carefully rub it in. If the tickling is deeper, I put a drop on a cotton swab and very carefully go in deeper, but no further than the end of the cotton. Used regularly (to be determined by oneself), I only have a problem when I forget to do it.

  4. John

    Try “cyclopentanoperhydrophenanthrene”. I learned that as a challenge in my first year of Pharmacy training in1948.
    Knowing that has never been the slightest bit of use to me,but it always stuck when much more important things have disappeared in the mists of time!

  5. Joe

    I use rubbing alcohol and a cotton swab to clean my ears, but I never put it in past the cotton. I have been doing this 30 years and never had a problem. I use to go 2 to 3 times per year for a cleaning, I now go maybe every other year.

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