Is Cleaning Your Ears With Cotton Swabs Really That Dangerous?

Photo: Matt Rourke, AP

A real-life horror tale that’s gotten renewed media attention this week is sure to make you think twice about digging earwax out of your ears. An Australian woman says she developed a life-threatening infection that ate away parts of her skull after years of swabbing her ears with cotton. But how likely is that scenario — and how dangerous are cotton swabs to our ears really?

First things first, there’s no good reason to stick cotton swabs in your ears, as every product nowadays reminds you. “Oh, but what about my mammoth, massing mounds of earwax!?” you might protest. Well, the collection of skin cells, oil and hair shed by our ears that we call ear wax is actually good for us. It helps lubricate and waterproof the skin along the ear canal, while also keeping certain bacteria from overgrowing.

More importantly, our ears slowly push earwax out as it accumulates, aided by the movement of our jaw. In other words, the ear is already self-cleaning.

Of course, sometimes people can have excess earwax, which can contribute to hearing loss if it doesn’t clear up on its own and goes untreated. If you’re dealing with that, though, you should see your doctor for help and not try to excavate it yourself (or turn to ear candling, for that matter). There are thankfully plenty of treatments for excess earwax, none of which involve cotton swabs.

Many people still disregard this advice, though, including the 39-year-old woman who detailed her story this past May in the Australian magazine that’s life!

According to her retelling, the woman identified only as Jasmine used to clean her ears with cotton swabs (or cotton buds, as she calls them) every night. For years, she had also coped with hearing loss and the occasional strange noise in her left ear. She then began to experience earaches as well, which prompted a visit to the doctor and eventually led to the discovery of a severe infection behind her left ear — one that had steadily eroded the bone surrounding it for as long as five years.

“It turned out that, shockingly, the [fibres] from my cotton buds had managed to lodge themselves in my ear, becoming infected,” Jasmine wrote.

Jasmine’s story is eerily similar to a case reported by UK doctors in March. In that case, a 31-year-old man developed an infection along the lining of his brain that caused neurological symptoms, including seizures. Tracing his ordeal back to the start, his doctors determined the infection started in his left ear years before, caused by the still-intact tip of a cotton swab stuck in his ear. The UK man was fortunate enough to recover fully after the surgical removal of infected skull tissue and intense antibiotic therapy. Jasmine, however, continues to have some hearing loss a year after her otherwise successful treatment.

Both of these cases are absolutely terrifying. But they’re also the worst-case scenario when it comes to getting hurt from cotton swabs. Much more common are incidents where these swabs damage or even puncture the eardrum, the thin membrane that separates our outer ear from the internal middle ear. While even a ruptured eardrum can heal on its own, more severe injuries can cause some degree of permanent hearing loss.

It’s unclear how often these more mundane, if still serious accidents happen. But kids are thought to be at higher risk for them. And a 2017 study found that more than 260,000 U.S. children had been sent to the emergency room between 1990 and 2010 with a cotton swab-caused ear injury. That averages out to 12,000 such cases happening annually, assuming the trend has remained steady. The real toll, including adults, is likely higher.

“I now try to warn everyone of the dangers of misusing cotton buds,” Jasmine wrote. “Our ears are such delicate and sensitive parts of our body and need to be treated with care.”

Odds are, you probably won’t rot your brain from the inside out by swabbing your ears with cotton. But you’re not doing yourself any favours, and you’re definitely gambling with your hearing. So listen to the experts and stop sticking things in your ear.

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