“Don’t put beans in your ears!” my mother would jokingly warn me when I was growing up. She was convinced that my ears were so dirty that the beans might actually take sprout. One not so humorous threat that she did not warn me against was the Q-tip. It is estimated that up to 85% of people use Q-tips to clean their ears. How can something as seemingly harmless as a simple cotton swab be dangerous? Aside from the obvious—abraded ear canals and punctured ear drums due to over-vigorous use—Q-tips can also push earwax further down the ear canal. Cerumen, the more technical term for earwax, can then become impacted, fully occluding the ear.
Cerumen is a mixture of dead skin cells in the ear canal and glandular secretions. Though this description seems somewhat unappetizing, earwax is important for preventing infection and trapping dirt in the ear canal. Production of cerumen can vary from person to person and can change as we age. When this cerumen gets impacted it can result in temporary hearing loss, tinnitus, vertigo, ear pain, and Otitis Externa (an infection of the ear canal). When cerumen becomes impacted, it is often necessary to see an ear specialist, such as an Otolaryngologist, for removal. They may request that you use prescribed drops to soften the wax or eradicate infection before removal can take place.
Luckily regular use of Q-tips is unnecessary as our ear canals naturally clean themselves. As we talk or chew throughout the day, the ear canal is moved by our lower jaw. This periodic movement helps shift earwax towards the outside of the ear canal where it can easily be cleaned with a damp washcloth.
Periodic use of over-the-counter wax softening drops may also be recommended by your physician or audiologist if you produce more than normal amounts of cerumen or have an unusually small or oddly shaped ear canal. Drops may also be suggested it you regularly use earplugs or utilize hearing aids. Hearing aids and in-the-ear style hearing protection can block the ears usual cleaning process. Wax softening drops work to supplement the ear’s natural processes. Along with use of drops it also a good idea to have your ears periodically checked for cerumen accumulation at annual physicals and/or hearing aid appointments. At these times it can be removed by a physician or audiologist who is trained to do so safely.
The best ways to protect our ears and circumvent cerumen impaction is to have our ears checked regularly and to avoid use of Q-tips or any other foreign objects to clean our ears. I’m sure you’ve heard the following advice: Never put anything smaller than your elbow in your ear. Remember to save your beans for chili and keep to Q-tips safely out of your ears.
Sarah Nordberg, AuD is an audiologist at Affinity Hearing in Plymouth. She may be reached at 763-744-1190 for any questions. Affinity Hearing provides free hearing screenings and hearing protection consults to the general public.