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Don't Stick It Where The Sun Don't Shine: Why You Shouldn't Use Cotton Swabs In Your Ear Canals

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If you've ever used cotton swabs to clean out your ear canals or scratch an itch inside there, get out of that habit now. You've heard your doctors tell you before not to do that, but many times the reason they give is vague, along the lines of, "You'll hurt yourself." It sounds like a generic warning, but there really are some serious reasons not to use cotton swabs in your ear canals. Here are three reasons why you really don't want to stick cotton swabs in your ear canals.

Sudden Shifts

If you stick the swab inside your ear canal, trying to clean out wax, for example, a sudden shift could move your arm and send the swab right into the tympanic membrane, aka your eardrum. The swab can pierce the membrane, making it nearly impossible to hear out of that ear and also causing you great pain. If the jolt is hard enough, the swab can crash into your middle ear, crushing the chain of bones inside that help transmit sound to your inner ear. In other words, you can do major, major damage from which you might not be able to recover fully. Events that can send the swab flying include quakes, someone bumping into your arm, the door to the bathroom opening suddenly and pushing your arm, and also just generally making a mistake and inserting the swab too forcefully.

Scary Scratches

The skin inside your ear canal is very thin, and if you drag the swab on the skin too hard, you can scratch the skin and develop an infection. You can also irritate the skin so much, even if there's no scrape, that it begins to itch repeatedly. This can lead to a bad cycle in which you use cotton swabs more and more, and you increase your risk of an infection each time you use another swab to scratch the itch.

Hurt Hearing

One of the reasons people like to use cotton swabs is because they think they're cleaning out all the old earwax from the canal. They pull the swab out, see some wax on the cotton, and think they did the right thing. However, a lot of the time, the swab pushes more wax into the canal than it brings out, and the wax becomes impacted. Eventually, this can form a plug that blocks the canal, causing temporary hearing loss. You can't get the plug out yourself and would have to visit someone certified in earwax removal to safely remove it.

Outside OK

You can use cotton swabs to clean your ears in one situation -- when the swab is outside the canal. It's OK to use the swabs to clean your earlobes, for example, when you've had your ears pierced, and you can use the swabs to gently and carefully clean the pinna, which is the skin and cartilage on the side of your head and what you usually think of as your ear. But keep the swab away from the canal opening, and try to remember to brace your arm or hand so that you don't accidentally slip and send the swab right into the canal.

If you want to know more about keeping your ears safe, contact an audiologist. Many are certified in earwax removal (called cerumen management) and can talk to you about why you don't have to clean it out. If you're concerned that there's a lot in there, the audiologist can check and put your mind at ease. To learn more, speak to someone like Otolaryngology Plastic Surgery Associates PC .