Dangers of DIY Ear Cleaning

Cotton swabs. Cotton buds. Ear candles. Three seemingly harmless devices millions of people use around the world to clean their ears — and most swear by them when it comes to removing ear wax, water or other debris. But these tools aren’t as harmless as they seem. Most medical professionals — primary and hearing care alike — strongly warn you not to use them. From punctured ear drums to super-impacted ear wax, the number of medical disasters commonly experienced with do-it-yourself (DIY) ear cleaning methods are extensive. In fact, a new study from The Eaton-Peabody Laboratories at the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary determined that there is a direct link between simple ear blockages (like ear wax or ear infections) and temporary or permanent hearing loss.

How can DIY ear cleaning damage my hearing?

The American Academy of Otolaryngology – Head and Neck Surgery Foundation published very specific guidelines on the ‘do’s’ and ‘don’ts’ of ear cleaning, one key point being: “Patients often think that they are preventing earwax from building up by cleaning out their ears with cotton swabs, paper clips, ear candles or any number of unimaginable things that people put in their ears… But anything that fits in the ear could cause serious harm to the eardrum and canal, with the potential for temporary or even permanent hearing damage.” How?

First, our eardrums are extremely delicate and can be ruptured just as easily as it is to put a Q-Tip in our ears — even if you’re using the gentlest touch. While punctured eardrums can heal, it is not a pleasant experience, most of the time it’s very painful. And sometimes, it can even cause conductive hearing loss (which usually involves a reduction in sound level or the inability to hear faint sounds at all). Second, if you’ve ever used a Q-Tip or cotton swab to clean your ears, you’ve most likely seen some yellow or brown wax on the end of the Q-Tip once you’ve removed it from your ear canal. Yes, you were successful in removing some ear wax, but you’ve most likely pushed much of it back into your ear canal — and getting that out requires help from a medical professional.

Is ear wax a good thing?

Despite what many people think or say, ear wax is actually a very good thing to have. The canals in our ears have specialized cells that produce cerumen (AKA ear wax), and it serves as protection for our ears, keeping dirt, dust and even water out of unsafe places. Cleaning out our ears completely means less protection, and sometimes may even cause dry skin that can lead to serious ear infections. And while some people accumulate more wax than others, using a foreign device like a Q-Tip to rid yourself of excess wax will most likely cause much more harm than good.

To put this in perspective, consider the study conducted by researchers at The Nationwide Children’s Hospital which found that, “over a 21-year period from 1990-2010, an estimated 263,000 children younger than 18 years of age were treated in US hospital emergency departments for cotton tip applicator related ear injuries — that’s about 12,500 annually, or about 34 injuries every day.” But children aren’t the only ones prone to injuries from Q-Tips or cotton swabs. Serious injuries associated with these tools happen every day – from tripping with a Q-tip in the ear to bumping into something or simply being over aggressive in cleaning – it’s easy for anyone to seriously injury themselves while using these devices. 

Do we really need to clean our ears?

Yes and no. Like the rest of our bodies, a good cleaning to the outer ear every now and then has its benefits. A safe, at-home treatment for ear wax blockage, as recommended by the American Academy of Otolaryngology – Head and Neck Surgery, is to try placing a few drops of mineral oil, baby oil, glycerin or commercial drops in your ear. This alternative is a safe way to achieve relief, and can also aid in the removal of wax. However, in most cases, the ear canal does not need to be cleaned. A wet wash cloth, hot showers or even washing our hair lets enough water into our ears to loosen any ear wax compiled, and the skin inside our ear canal grows in a spiral, outward formation which allows our ear wax to come out easily. And did you know that most of the time, ear wax loosens enough to fall out on its own in our sleep? This means Q-tips, cotton swabs or any other DIY ear cleaning devices really are not necessary. The truth is, nothing should be put inside our ears for self-cleaning.

But for those people who do have heavy wax buildup or need a serious ear cleaning, the safest way to ensure your ears are at their cleanest is to consult a hearing care professional or other physician. Using an otoscope, a lighted device that assists in looking deeply into your ear canal, these specialists can assess your situation and determine the best course of action for your hearing health. Most often, your doctor can easily remove wax in a quick, effective and pain-free manner.

Do you have concerns about your ear wax buildup? Think you’re due for a hearing check-up? Find a hearing care center near you today, and stay on the road to making Everyday Sounds Better.

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