Mom Was Right: Never Put Anything in Your Ear

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These innocent-looking applicators are far from harmless, experts say.

If you automatically reach for a cotton swab when your child gets out of the bath, consider this: A new study published in the Journal of Pediatrics shows that 34 children are rushed to U.S. emergency rooms every day with ear injuries related to cotton-tip swabs. Most injuries result from the child, a parent, or a sibling trying to clean the ear.

These innocent-looking applicators are far from harmless, experts say. Inserting a swab into the ear can tear the eardrum or push wax in so deep that it can cause an infection. In rare cases, more serious injuries can result, such as damage to the hearing bones or inner ear. This can lead to dizziness, balance problems, and permanent hearing loss.

“It is a misconception that ear canals need to be cleaned after bathing,” says John P. Dahl, MD, PhD, MBA, otolaryngologist at Riley Hospital for Children at Indiana University Health.  “The ear is a self-cleaning structure.”  The lining of the ear canal naturally sheds surface cells in a way that moves dirt and wax away from the ear drum, he explains.

If you’re trying to remove ear wax, a cotton-tip applicator won’t get the job done —it will only push the wax further into the ear. And as it turns out, we shouldn’t be removing ear wax anyway, because it serves a number of positive functions. “For example, it has a role in protecting the ear from infections,” Dr. Dahl says. 

The best way to clean the ear is to let the ear clean itself, Dr. Dahl says. “We do recommend cleaning the outside of the ear with normal soap and water,” he adds. “Then dry the external ear with a towel. As this study clearly demonstrates, we don’t recommend using a cotton swab.”

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