Ear wax is disgusting, and many people assume that they need to clear it out as part of their everyday hygiene regimen. If you regularly clean your ears with cotton swabs, however, you’re taking an unnecessary risk. Here’s why.
Wax On, Wax Off
Our bodies produce earwax to help trap dust and keep other particles from reaching our eardrums. The amount of earwax someone produces is genetically determined, and normally it should dry up and fall out of the ear on its own.
However, sometimes wax can’t find its way out naturally due to the shape or size of a person’s ear canals. This is when most people turn to cotton swabs, cotton balls, or bobby pins to go after the wax themselves. Doctors recommend against this practice for the following reasons.
“We always say, ‘Never put anything smaller than your elbow in your ear,’” Dr. Martin Burton, a professor of otolaryngology at the University of Oxford in England, told Time.
Understanding the Risks
While cotton swabs might seem to clear out your ears, they’re usually doing more harm than good. The cotton tips can only clear out superficial wax, and if you push too hard, you can compact the rest of the wax into the ear canal.
After repeated home cleanings, wax can become impacted, blocking the eardrum. This puts you at risk for a variety of health issues that require professional treatment. Symptoms of impacted ear wax are dizziness, ear pain, decreased hearing, itching, ringing sensations, and a plugged or full feeling in the ear.
Impaction isn’t the only problem caused by cotton swabs. You can also seriously damage the bones in your ear. Erika Woodson, a neurotologist at the Cleveland Clinic, described her experience with a patient who aggressively used cotton swabs.
“I had a patient who actually knocked her hearing bones out of place with a cotton swab,” Woodson said. “As a result, she lost significant hearing and needed two surgeries to rebuild those bones.”
Safe Methods for Wax Removal
You should seek help from a healthcare professional right away if you experience any of the symptoms of earwax impaction. If you wait too long to contact a doctor, you risk infection and even permanent hearing loss.
Luckily, there are ways to safely manage your earwax levels at home that don’t involve sticking anything in your ears. You can purchase over the counter wax-softening drops like Debrox or Murine that liquify wax, allowing it to drain from the canal. After applying, simply tilt your head from side to side to clear out the wax.
Another popular solution is the irrigation method, which involves dropping mineral or baby oil in your ear, then using a syringe full of warm water to flush everything out. However, cleanliness is key, and this can be a bad idea if you have signs of impaction already.
Doctors do not recommend ear candling, a process in which a person places a hollow cone made of paraffin into the ear canal, then lights the other end on fire. The heat is supposed to create a vacuum that will pull wax out of the ear canal, but no studies have proven the effectiveness of this method. In fact, it has caused numerous injuries.
Unless your body creates an excess amount of wax, a once-a-year cleaning at your doctor’s office should be sufficient for keeping your ear canal clear. Cotton swabs are effective for cleaning the outside of the ear, but don’t go deeper.
Use liquid drops if you absolutely need to clear out ear wax deeper in the ear canal. If you have recurring issues, talk to your doctor about potential treatments to keep your ears clean and hearing well.