There’s a common saying that you should never stick anything smaller than an elbow inside your ear. This often elicits a chuckle, but audiologists in Medford say it’s good advice to heed. People stick all sorts of objects inside their ears – fingers, safety pins, tissues – but doing so is asking for trouble. Even items seemingly designed for use in the ears, such as cotton swabs, are dangerous.
The Perils of Cotton Swabs
The harrowing story of a 31-year-old man in England who nearly died from an infection caused by a cotton swab in his ear has recently come to light. It serves as an excellent cautionary tale on the dangers of inserting things into your ears.
BMJ Case Reports published the report involving an unidentified male from Coventry, England. He collapsed without warning one day after experiencing seizures. Prior to this, his health was fine; he’d complained of occasional pain and hearing difficulty in his left ear for a few years but otherwise had no medical concerns. His physician had recently prescribed antibiotics to treat what was thought to be a severe ear infection.
A few days before his collapse, the man’s pain intensified and was accompanied by headaches, nausea and vomiting. He’d been noticing recent signs of memory loss, as well. Upon transport to the hospital, scans showed abscesses between the surface of his brain and the protective membrane surrounding it. Closer examination revealed an impacted cotton swab deep in his left ear canal; this caused a serious infection known as necrotizing otitis externa to spread from the soft tissues in his ear canal to the surrounding bone. Surgeons removed the cotton swab, cleaned his ear canal and treated the infection with antibiotics. He recovered completely from the frightening incident (and now has a fun conversation to share over the dinner table).
While this man’s experience was extreme, the American Academy of Otolaryngology — Head and Neck Surgery warns against using cotton swabs to clean your ears. They usually end up doing more harm than good, simply pushing wax deeper into your ear canals. Cotton swabs aren’t the only potentially dangerous objects; the Academy also warns against items such as safety pins and toothpicks, whose sharp edges could cause a perforation of the eardrum or a cut in the ear canal that might become infected. Children are especially susceptible; more than 263,000 were treated in emergency rooms between 1990 and 2010 for ear injuries related to the use of cotton swabs and other items. Speak to them about these hazards to prevent an unpleasant visit.
Your ears can be cleaned just fine without cotton swabs, according to your Medford audiologist. Wipe away excess earwax from the outer portion of your ear using a washcloth or tissue. Otherwise, your ears are naturally self-cleaning and will take care of the rest all on their own.