The truth about cleaning your ears with cotton swabs

We all know that you’re not supposed to clean your ears with a Q-tip. And yet, people still do it all the time. Surely you’ve heard the horror stories about a friend of a friend of a friend piercing their eardrum (or maybe you watch Girls and have yet to scrub the memory of Hannah’s Q-tip scene out of your head). But do you really know what’s at stake? And how bad is it that no matter how many times you’re told to stop you know that you’re never going to drop the habit?

Here are the ear-cleaning do’s, don’ts, and please-don’t-but-if-you-do’s you need to know.

The truth about cleaning your ears with cotton swabs

OK, so first of all, you don’t actually need to clean your ears.

“Generally speaking, the ear canal is self-cleaning,” Dr. Christopher Chang, an otolaryngologist in Warrenton, Virginia, told SELF. “You really don’t have to do a whole lot. In certain individuals, earwax can build up in the ear canal—and you don’t want it to build up to the point where you can’t hear. But the majority of folks don’t have to do anything.”

That said, we know you’re cleaning your ears with Q-tips, even though everyone says you shouldn’t.

“Everyone knows you’re not suppose to use them, and yet everyone does it,” Chang said. “I’m not going to get all bent out of shape if someone admits to using Q-tips. You just want to make sure that your ear is safe.”

The dangers of sticking a cotton swab into your ear are real. And there’s a range of damage you can do.

The most basic issue is that using a Q-tip is probably doing the opposite of what it’s supposed to do. Your intention is to get earwax out, but you’re probably just packing it deeper in there, which can plug up your ear canal and make you feel stuffy or itchy, or can interfere with your hearing. If the ear canal is totally blocked with wax you can get tinnitus, a ringing or buzzing in the ear.

And don’t think your doctor isn’t going to notice, either. “You can actually see the impression of the Q-tip on the earwax,” when you look at it with a scope, Chang said. Busted.

The skin inside your ear canal is also really, really sensitive, so scraping around in there with a stick wrapped in cotton can scratch it, which leaves you open to ear infections. If an infection gets really bad you can get swimmer’s ear, which is when the skin swells up so much that it completely closes the ear canal. It’s also really painful.
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