Q-tips are smaller than your elbow

by Dr. Clint Keifer, FLT Columnist

Invented in the 1920s by Leo Gerstenzang, the cotton swab has many applications including use with model building, microbiology (cultures), medicine, cleaning, and so forth. By far the most popular use, however, is one NOT recommended by health professionals—cleaning of the ears.

Putting cotton swabs into your ears puts you at risk for damaging the delicate skin and blood vessels of the canal and even perforating the eardrum. While these are serious problems (sometimes requiring surgical repair in the case of a perforation), more common issues arise from the attempts to remove wax on a regular basis.

Most people do not realize that the human ear canal produces earwax to protect the ear by deterring bugs, collecting dust/debris, waterproofing, and helping to prevent bacterial and fungal infections from occurring. Over-cleaning of the ear can result in dryness, itchy ears, and increased risk for infections (e.g., swimmer’s ear).


So, how do you keep your ears clean?

Few also know that the ear is always renewing the skin of the eardrum and ear canal, which grows from the eardrum outward at the blazing speed of one-tenth of a millimeter per day (about the speed fingernails grow). This outward growth works to move old wax, which is only produced in the outer one-third of the canal, toward and out of the ear opening where it can be easily washed away during bathing. 

This leads me to the most common issue I see with Q-tipping—impacted earwax. Pushing a swab into the ear interferes with the natural cleaning mechanism. Each time the swab goes in, a portion of the wax is pushed deeper into the canal, slowly constructing a wall of wax that jams up the canal and causes temporary hearing loss, discomfort, ringing of the ear, and even dizziness. Once impaction occurs, audiological/medical treatment is typically needed. 

Do your ears a favor and follow your grandmother’s nothing-in-your-ear-smaller-than-your-elbow advice unless otherwise directed by your audiologist or physician. 

Dr. Clint Keifer is the owner of Great Lakes Audiology in Toledo. You can contact him at 419-327-2273; email at ckeifer@glaudiology.com; or visit http://www.GLAudiology.com.