The Sticky Truth About Ear Wax

Toddler boy

Many of us use cotton swabs (commonly called Q-tips) inside our ears to clean out wax and water. And, well-intended parents may actually use the swabs on their children’s ears as well. The problem is that using the swabs can actually cause injury, or create an even bigger problem – impacted wax.

Earwax actually has several important jobs for which you might want to keep it around. It protects and moisturizes the skin of the canal, preventing itchy/flaky/dandruff-like ears. Additionally, it contains special chemicals that help fight infections. And, when dust and dirt enter your ear, earwax serves as a sticky shield, preventing debris from traveling further.

Because you can’t feel how deep you’re going into the ear, never use a cotton swab to clean your child’s ears. You can unintentionally cause serious injury. Many doctors see people with eardrum injuries requiring medical care or a procedure as a result of cleaning their ears with cotton swabs.

Another issue is that while you are trying to get the wax out, you may actually be packing more in. Impacted wax can decrease hearing and cause pain. Routinely I see impacted wax in the ears of my patients, and it is very difficult to remove. Sometimes we need to shoot pressurized water into the ear to get it out.

I will confess, I use “cotton-tipped applicators” on the little crevices on the outside of my ears, and even just slightly into my ear canal, but I never get close to the eardrum.┬áIn the office, I only treat earwax with the use of an otoscope, a device that allows me to see into a patient’s ears.

While implements for cleaning out our ears date back centuries, remember it’s not actually necessary and can cause more harm than good.