Cotton Swabs Can Hurt Your Ears

Cotton Swabs Can Hurt Your Ears

Researchers from Henry Ford Hospital found a connection between ruptured eardrums and cotton swab use.

Published May 10, 2011

So many of us were raised to use cotton swabs to clean the wax out of our ears, but a new study has found that that route can be damaging. Researchers from Henry Ford Hospital found a connection between ruptured eardrums and cotton swab use.


And the reality is that more than 50 percent of people who visit ear, throat and nose specialists admit to using swabs to clean out their ears. The practice can damage eardrums if people push them in too far and clean too aggressively.


The eardrum separates the outer ear from the middle ear and it vibrates when sound waves strike it. Bones and nerve endings in the middle and inner parts of the ear then send a nerve impulse that travels to the brain. When the eardrum is damaged, the hearing process is interrupted.


And let's be clear: A ruptured eardrum is no walk in the park. It can cause "ringing" in the ear; drainage of the ear (with pus, blood or clear liquid); ear aches; dizziness; and in severe cases can cause facial paralysis and hearing loss. But there's good news. Almost all of the cases of ruptured eardrums—minus facial paralysis—healed without surgery within a few months.


"In the past, many [ear, throat and nose specialists] have wondered if surgery is really necessary to treat a ruptured eardrum. The results of this study show that 97 percent of cases healed on their own within two months, proving that most cases do not require surgery," Dr. Ilaaf Darrat, an ear, nose and throat specialist at Henry Ford Hospital and co-author of the study.


OK. So I know the question that you want to ask: "So if I can't use swabs every day then how should I clean out my ears?" The study's researchers suggest these alternative methods:


Mix equal amounts of cool peroxide and hot tap water. Allow the mixture to reach body temperature and then irrigate the ear—gently—no more than twice a month.


Another idea is to mix one part plain vinegar and one part water and use four or five drops once a week.


Make an appointment with a doctor to have ear wax removed, or try an over-the-counter treatment to soften the ear wax so it can be flushed out.


But even if in most cases eardrums can heal themselves, Darrat also stresses, "If a patient is experiencing symptoms such as hearing loss, drainage, dizziness or abnormality in their facial movements, they should see a doctor immediately to assess the possible ear damage."


To learn more about ear health and what you can do to protect your ears and hearing, click here.

(Photo: William Thomas Cain/Getty Images)

Written by Kellee Terrell


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