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Why You Really, Truly Should Not Put Q-Tips Into Your Ears

Notice the warning. (Carey Goldberg/WBUR)
Notice the warning. (Carey Goldberg/WBUR)

Brilliant. Just brilliant. Do you think I may qualify for one of those Darwin awards? Here's my sorry tale:

Many a morning, my ears are still wet from my shampoo when I insert my phone's earpieces into them. One recent morning, a little light bulb lit up over my head: "Hey! I'll lightly swab the water out with Q-tips to speed the drying process! Sure, there's some advice I'm vaguely aware of that it's really not healthy to insert Q-tips — or anything smaller than your elbow — into your ear, but just look at the little cotton domeheads on sticks! They're so clearly engineered to enter an earhole, aren't they?"

The swabbing felt good, and seemed to work. Just one small problem: Within days, I was experiencing occasional bouts of what I can only describe as indescribable weirdness. It was a sort of dislocating reality shift. A sudden sense that the world was off, and then righted itself again. Something like the feeling you get when you're on a stationary train and don't notice when it starts moving, then look out the window and see the landscape sliding by: a displacement, a minor sensory shock, a brief vertigo.

Dr. Jennifer Smullen (Courtesy of Mass. Eye and Ear)
Dr. Jennifer Smullen (Courtesy of Mass. Eye and Ear)

With my few remaining brain cells, I made the wise decision to stop using the Q-tips, and the sensation abated a few days later. And in hopes that others may learn from my mistakes, I spoke today with Dr. Jennifer Smullen, an otologist and neurotologist (a specialist in surgery of the ear and nerves to the ear) at Massachusetts Eye and Ear. She was kind enough first to treat my sheepishness, and then to share wisdom that I hope spreads far and wide. Our conversation, lightly edited:

I am feeling very stupid at the moment...

Don't feel stupid. This comes up over and over. I do not have a day that goes by that I do not address this issue.

Sigh. I'm feeling a little better. So why should I not have done what I did?

Number one, you would like to have some wax in your ears. The ear canal makes wax for a purpose. The wax in your ear waterproofs the ear canal and keeps water from going in and getting stuck, sort of like wax on your car. If you clean your ear with a Q-tip, that strips the wax and lets the water stay in.

So my trying to remove water with a Q-tip actually created a vicious cycle?

Exactly. So number one, you should leave the wax in your ears because it waterproofs them. It's also a natural antibiotic. It’s naturally acidic and it prevents infection in your ear. So if you take away the wax, you're more likely to get a swimmer’s ear infection. Third reason why you shouldn’t remove the wax with a Q-tip in particular is that at the end of the ear canal is the ear drum, and the ear drum is much closer to the outside than you might think. If you put a Q-tip in your ear so the entire cotton has gone in, you're probably touching your ear drum. People always say they didn't go in that far, and they always do.

And what's the problem with reaching the ear drum?

The ear drum is very delicate, so you can puncture it with a Q-tip, and I’ve seen that many times.

The other reason is that if you touch the ear drum you press on the little bones of hearing underneath — the hammer, the anvil and the stirrup. They’re the tiniest bones in the body and they're right under the eardrum, attached to it. And if you press on those, it sends shock waves into the inner ear, and the inner ear is responsible for hearing and balance. So if you tap on the eardrum, you're sending shock waves into the inner ear and you can cause problems with your hearing and balance.

(Wikimedia Commons)
(Wikimedia Commons)

What's a worst-case scenario?

If you put a Q-tip into your ear you could puncture your eardrum and that may require surgery to fix it. It can even make you lose your hearing in your ear forever. The more common thing that happens is that the Q-tip is exactly the size of your ear canal, so when you put it in your ear, you push the wax in deeper and it gets stuck, and then you have to have some help to get it out.

How about getting water out?

If you get water stuck in your ear, these are the best ways to take care of it: One is to take a hair dryer and blow it on a cool setting into your ear until the water evaporates. The other way is to put a couple of drops of rubbing alcohol in your ear. The alcohol will displace the water and then evaporate.

Brilliant! And what exactly was it, that weirdness that I felt? A form of vertigo?

I can tell you what that probably was, if what you felt was that when you turned your head or tipped it back, you felt a kind of "catch-up." There are some small calcium crystals inside of the inner ear called otoliths. If you tap on your eardrum and that pushes on the little bones of hearing and sends a shock wave into the inner ear, the crystals can become dislodged, and every time you turn your head, you shift and you get that little 'bu-bumbum.' There's a name for it: BPPV, for Benign Paroxysmal Positional Vertigo. You probably caused it by a little trauma to your ear by using the Q-tips, and it usually goes away on its own. There are also certain amazing things we can do in the office; we put your head in certain positions and that makes it go away.

Good to know. Really, my only defense is that the form of the Q-tip just so seems to suggest putting it into your ear...

If you look at the box, it says not to put it in your ear. The best way to clean your ears is to take a tissue and drape it over your finger, and anywhere you can reach with your finger, it's safe to go.

Readers, have you had any sort of experience like mine? And it's true there are warnings on the box, but don't you think they should be made bigger?

This program aired on November 28, 2012. The audio for this program is not available.

Carey Goldberg Editor, CommonHealth
Carey Goldberg is the editor of WBUR's CommonHealth section.



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