Last updated on August 27, 2021.
Is there anything more satisfying than cleaning your ears out with a cotton bud? Okay, we can think of a few things, but it’s up there. Doctors say that cleaning your ears with a cotton bud (or Q-tip) initiates the ‘itch-scratch cycle’ – the more you itch, the more histamines are released and the more you need to scratch. And so, the cycle continues. According to Hong Kong ENT specialist Dr. David Ho 何志謙醫生, it’s a habit you need to kick.
Using cotton buds to clean your ears is dangerous
Using a cotton bud in your ear has the exact opposite effect as was intended – instead of clearing your ear of wax, it actually pushes the wax further into your ear. “Because you cannot see your ear canal, you end up pushing the wax further in” explains Dr. Ho. With all that extra wax between you and the world of music and infectious baby giggles, your eardrum may begin to have trouble vibrating. Eventually earwax impaction could lead to hearing reduction, even loss. Plus, using cotton buds can induce micro-traumas to the ear canal due to friction; similar to a carpet burn.
Earwax is necessary for protecting your ears
Believe it or not, the system that has developed over millennia of evolution is actually better at keeping your ears clean than a plastic stick with some cotton on it. Earwax, known medically as cerumen, protects your inner ear from the nasty outside world. Earwax has antibacterial properties, repels water, keeps the ear canal moist and healthy, and traps and prevents dust and other particles from entering your ear and potentially causing an infection to the delicate inner ear structure. Seems like a no-brainer that we would want to keep that yellow-brown cerumen around!
Symptoms of earwax impaction
The itching some people report after obsessive ear cleaning comes from the abrasions made by the cotton on the delicate inner ear skin. Just like a scrape on your knee, abrasions in your ears will itch as they heal. In addition to ‘itching’ in your ear, the symptoms of earwax impaction are:
- decreased hearing
- ear pain
- ringing in the ear
- a full sensation in the ear
If you suspect earwax impaction in either yourself or your child, we recommend speaking to your doctor. They will be able to determine whether there is any ear damage and possibly remove the wax. Babies and toddlers with earwax impaction will often tug at their ears.
Let your ears self-clean
Naturally, as you move your jaw while chewing and talking, the earwax moves slowly out of your ear canal where it dries up and drops out. Adults and children should not put anything smaller than an elbow in their ears to clean them. This test is anatomically impossible (please send us a video if you prove this theory incorrect!) so it is best to assume that no Q-tips, cotton buds, curettes (a metal or wooden instrument used to scrap out the wax), fingers, or sharp objects should be going near your ear canal.
Babies and small children, in particular, often have very efficient self-cleaning ears and often appear to produce a lot of earwax. If you see extra earwax building up on your child’s outer ears, a wet wash cloth with no soap should be sufficient to clean them. Remember to pat them dry. We can’t stress enough that for both adults and children it’s important to avoid sticking anything in the ear.
As Dr. David Ho explains, the crux of the matter is that, earwax is normal and “by inserting an object to clean your ears, you are removing one of the body’s tools to keep itself healthy and happy”.