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Cotton Swabs Send Dozens of Kids to Emergency Room Daily

Despite countless studies and cautionary tales of punctured ear drums, there is still a segment of the population that uses cotton swabs to clean ear wax. For adults, there is certainly nothing to stop them from the ill-advised expedient of jabbing a stick into their ear canal and expecting a positive outcome. Why children are still being injured cotton swabs is more difficult to excuse. 

A  Journal of Pediatrics study found that each day approximately 34 children are admitted to the emergency room for injuries linked to cotton swabs. This amounts to over a quarter-million visits in 21 years. Most of these injuries were not the result of falls or accidents. In fully three-quarters of the cases, the ear injuries were sustained during conventional ear cleaning. 

Contrary to popular belief, cleaning your ears is usually unnecessary. Our ears are self-cleaning and under normal circumstances, earwax is only produced in the outer one-third of your ear canal. If left alone, the earwax will migrate out of your ears naturally. There’s no need to forcefully remove it. Further, sticking any foreign object in your ear poses the potential for injury, especially if the thin skin of your ear canal is broken or the ossicles (bones of your middle ear) are damaged.

Earwax isn’t a substance you need to guard your ears against; it’s actually beneficial and provides protection, lubrication and antibacterial properties. The skin in your ears grows in an outward direction in order to move earwax and skin debris out of your ear canal. The removal of earwax is also helped along by movements of your jaw (talking and chewing).

Cotton swabs are not meant to insert into your ears and doing so can damage your eardrum, skin or ossicles. One of the primary risks of cotton swabs is they can push the earwax into the deeper part of your ear canal, near the eardrum. The cotton head of the swab could also potentially pop off and get stuck in your ear canal, which would require professional removal. 

It is clear that many people have no intention of giving up their cotton-swab habit, even after recognizing the risks. The ear is an erogenous zone, after all, and cleaning the ears with cotton swabs is satisfying for many. 

There are alternative ear wax removal methods. These strategies are especially useful for parents or anyone who is responsible for the safety of children. First soften the wax by placing a few drops of olive oil, coconut oil or water in your ear. Then, pour a capful of 3 percent hydrogen peroxide in each ear to flush the wax out. It’s worth noting that using plain sterile water, or a sterile saline solution, to soften earwax works just as well as oil or over-the-counter eardrops.

As an aside, the hydrogen peroxide trick (pouring a capful of 3 percent hydrogen peroxide in your ears) also works remarkably well at resolving respiratory infections, like colds and flu. You will hear some bubbling, which is completely normal, and possibly feel a slight stinging sensation. Wait until the bubbling and stinging subside (usually 5 to 10 minutes) then drain onto a tissue and repeat with the other ear.
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