Think a cotton-tip applicator is the best way to clean your or your child's ears? You might want to think again, because according to new research published in The Journal of Pediatrics, these seemingly harmless cotton swabs are sending thousands of kids to hospital emergency departments every year.
In the May 2017 study, Nationwide Children's Hospital researchers analyzed data on hospital emergency visits during the 21-year period from 1990 through 2011. They found that roughly 263,000 children were sent to the emergency room with cotton swab-related ear injuries, which comes out to approximately 12,500 injuries per year, or 34 injuries per day.
Although some of the reported injuries occurred as a result of children playing with Q-tips or falling with Q-tips in their ears, most (73 percent) occurred as a result of simply using a Q-tip to clean their ears. More than three-quarters of these cleaning-related injuries were the result of children attempting to clean their own ears, but some were attributed to parents or siblings who were doing the cleaning. Two-thirds of the injured children were under 8 years old.
Of the children admitted to the hospital with cotton swab-related ear injuries, most experienced foreign body sensations (aka a feeling that there's something inside the ear that's causing pain or irritation), ear drum perforations, or soft tissue injuries. Overwhelmingly, these children were treated and released from the hospital in a timely fashion, but 1 percent of the children experienced damage to the ear drum, hearing bones, and inner ear that resulted in far more serious consequences, such as dizziness, balance problems, and even irreversible hearing loss.
"The two biggest misconceptions I hear as an otolaryngologist are that the ear canals need to be cleaned in the home setting, and that cotton tip applicators should be used to clean them; both of those are incorrect," senior study author Kris Matana, MD, a doctor in the Department of Pediatric Otolaryngology at Nationwide Children's Hospital, said in a press release. "The ears [sic] canals are usually self-cleaning. Using cotton tip applicators to clean the ear canal not only pushes wax closer to the ear drum, but there is a significant risk of causing minor to severe injury to the ear."
So, what should you use to clean your ears instead? Experts recommend simply running a damp wash cloth around the "outer bowl" of the ear. (Read: You don't need to push or prod any deeper into your ears to get them clean.) And if you're having trouble hearing or experiencing other problems with your ears? Schedule an in-office cleaning sesh with your doctor.