What the Yuck: Cotton swabs and ear wax
December 30th, 2011
01:04 PM ET

What the Yuck: Cotton swabs and ear wax

Too embarrassed to ask your doctor about sex, body quirks, or the latest celeb health fad? In a regular feature and a new book, "What the Yuck?!," Health magazine medical editor Dr. Roshini Raj tackles your most personal and provocative questions. Send 'em to Dr. Raj at whattheyuck@health.com.

Q: How bad is it really to stick a cotton swab in my ear?

We know, it feels so good to get in there! But cotton swabs are meant for use on the outside of your ear, not the inside. Sticking one in too far can push wax deeper inside the ear canal, possibly damaging the eardrum. And a little wax is actually healthy - it helps protect your sensitive ear canal.

If your ears are feeling really clogged up, see your doctor, who can suggest ear drops to use at home, or safely remove blockage for you.

Copyright Health Magazine 2011

soundoff (123 Responses)
  1. Stax of Wax

    Easiest and most effective method I've found: mix a small amount of warm water with an equal amount of hydrogen peroxide, then lie down on your side. If you're lucky enough to have help, have them pour some of the liquid until your ear is full. (If you're alone, it's no problem to pour it in your ears, but you might spill a few drops). You'll get this bubbly feeling that's ticklish, but not unpleasant. After 5 minutes or so, hold a towel to your ear then sit up as the liquid drains.

    2nd verse, same as the first. Just turn on your other side. If this is the first time you've ever tried this, you might want to clean both ears twice.

    December 31, 2011 at 23:14 | Report abuse | Reply
    • debi

      I've found that if you pour some on a cotton ball and then squeeze that in your ear, you don't spill anything!

      January 1, 2012 at 22:13 | Report abuse |
    • emma

      Peroxide will initially clean away ear wax however I have been warned by my doctor that peroxide is in fact too drying and your ears will compensate for the dryness by producing even more wax. If you do use peroxide then follow with petroleum jelly or baby oil to hydrate and 'seal' the skin in your ears.

      January 11, 2012 at 15:59 | Report abuse |
  2. Steve

    Just use your pinkie finger

    January 1, 2012 at 02:30 | Report abuse | Reply
    • situationalawareness

      I'm not sure about you, but my pinky finger won't fit into my ear...

      January 21, 2012 at 19:50 | Report abuse |
  3. Anne

    Stax of Wax...you failed to mention that after using your method that you should rinse your ear out with warm water. Your combination of water and peroxide is correct as that's what my doctor uses when she cleans out my ears. You can also use a product called Debrox which was recommended by the doctor. After using it, you also rinse your ear out with warm water. It's surprising the chucks of wax you can get out. As this article suggests never push anything into your ear, as your just packing the wax down deeper in the ear. My husband got into trouble doing that and had to go back to a doctor several times before it was all cleared up.

    January 1, 2012 at 07:29 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. RN

    At a medical supply house ,one can purchase an ear syringe that looks like a big
    eyedropper which pushes warm hopefully sterile water into the ear and eventually loosens the wax and pushes it out.
    One has to do this carefully so as not to hurt the delicate eardrum area,it takes practice with a person that is expert in
    this almost instant impacted earwax removal,then of course you can do this yourself ,once a month to avoid the loss
    of hearing from impacted wax.

    January 1, 2012 at 08:36 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. Chuck

    I use a few drops of Debrox,,, wait about 10 minutes,, then a hot shower,, works great do it about once a month

    January 1, 2012 at 08:39 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. Lucinda

    Excessive ear wax is an indication of an essential fatty acid deficiency. Take fish oil 1500 mg of EPA + DHA daily and it should cease to be a problem.

    January 1, 2012 at 10:09 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Paul

      Can you offer any references supporting what you just posted? It sounds like quackery to me.

      January 2, 2012 at 13:42 | Report abuse |
    • medic

      Ear Wax exocrine gland activity (and other exocrine gland activity) have nothing to do with diet. Jalopenio peppers not included.

      January 2, 2012 at 16:13 | Report abuse |
    • scientist

      @medic, do you have any references to support your assertion that diet has *no* effect on endocrine glands?

      January 27, 2012 at 10:54 | Report abuse |
  7. Joe M.

    I found that filling the ear canal with Vicks Vaporub (a mixture of camphor, eucalytus oil and menthol) disolves ear wax, kills fungus and reduces tinnitis (ear ringing). Later, in the shower, everything is washed out and ears are clear.

    January 1, 2012 at 10:51 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. James

    rI use it for my mustache, why waste perfectly good wax?

    January 1, 2012 at 16:45 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. Martin

    I disagree with this article. As long as you do not have the shakes, you can safely remove excess wax on a weekly basis. 20 years ago about 3 times a year, I had to go to a doctor to remove excess wax that was messing up my hearing or causing pain because of a stoppage. After a year of expense, exactly one week after the last cleaning, I began to use a cue tip to safely remove excess wax after a shower on Sunday. Since I have been doing that every week, I have never again had the excess wax buildup problem again. I am very careful to push it in very slowly and I even sometimes barely touch the ear drum, but it never hurts anything when it happens. I then back away and push the cue tip around the edge of the ear canal in a circular motion until I reach the end of the ear canal near the outer edge of my ear. I always see some wax on the cue tips. Seriously, I strongly feel this is NOT safe to do if you already have a large wax buildup. As long as you do this starting with a week after the last doctor cleaning, there is not enough wax to cause any buildup against the ear drum. You can remove just about all the wax without pushing any of it against the ear drum.

    January 1, 2012 at 20:29 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Darrell

      i agree, i've been cleaning my ears after showers for decades. Before that, my ent doctor said i was just a waxy person and i would have to make frequent cleaning appointments, i was also plagued with chronic ear infections. Now doctors remark how clean my ears are, yet they still claim the q-tip would only push the wax in deeper. I pull wax out every day and they are clean and I don't get ear infections. Occasionally I can get some irritation from the q-tips, it goes away.

      January 1, 2012 at 21:52 | Report abuse |
    • Charlie

      Rotating the cue tip, more than you push it in will avoid pushing the earwax into your ear.

      January 2, 2012 at 15:46 | Report abuse |
  10. Otto

    "We know, it feels so good to get in there! But cotton swabs are meant for use on the outside of your ear, not the inside."
    Right, thats why they are designed to fit in your ear. If you want to get the gunk from the outside of your ear you could just use a wash cloth. I went to the doctor once and he looked in my ears that were clogged with wax and he asked me why I never clean them out.

    January 2, 2012 at 07:30 | Report abuse | Reply
    • situationalawareness

      It's a confusing legal thing really. The cotton swab boxes always tell you not to put them into your ear, and the doctors always say to do it to clean the ear out. I can see the point though, if you pack the wax collectively into the back quadrant, it's not terribly comfortable.

      January 21, 2012 at 19:55 | Report abuse |
  11. mel ritter

    If you really want to remove ear wax, there is a product in the pharmacy called E.R.O that I have been using for years and it works great. yu put some drops of wax remover in your ear for a few minutes and then flush it out with a bulb syringe filled with luke warm water. takes no more that 5 minutes total. try it !!!!!

    January 2, 2012 at 10:23 | Report abuse | Reply
    • rh

      Basically similar to making a hydrogen peroxide/water mix for your ear, but they usually put in a little glycerin to thicken it up.

      January 2, 2012 at 14:17 | Report abuse |
  12. Chrissy

    I'm surprised nothing is said about the difference between wet and dry earwax here. Maybe those with dry earwax have more problems than those with wet earwax. The dry earwax may compact more or not naturally want to flow outward from the ear canal as wet earwax does simply by shower flushing (?).
    Qtips are designed to be small enough to fit in the ear, and despite all warnings of "you'll damage your eardrum", most people use them perfectly well on a daily basis to ensure their ear canals stay clear without bashing them through their eardrums. Gentle daily use keeps the ear canals clear. You obvioulsy don't push them through your eardrum to use them– and if it hurts, you shouldn't do it that way! (seems intuitive, but maybe some folks are just stupid)
    Maybe the ones telling folks they need to go to a doctor to deal with ear wax or that you have to purchase expensive medications/products versus just showering/rinsing well and drying ear canals using qtips have ulterior motives (to make money). For thousands of years, this was not required. So why so today?
    Strictly my opinion, but I say use the q-tips yourself, and help your kids until they are old enough to do it safely themselves. Elderly may need help too, as they have a harder time either staying steady or getting their arm/hands into the proper position to do it safely. All the rest is extra steps and expense that doesn't usually even have to be done unless you don't include keeping your ears clean as a part of your daily hygiene (which usually involves qtips for your ears).

    January 2, 2012 at 11:35 | Report abuse | Reply
  13. rh

    A wet warm washcloth is usually good enough. I do use cotton swabs, but only on the rim inside, never just poking in the cotton swab. As for puncturing the ear drum, the only way there would be a risk of that is if you moved your arm violently, or someone hit it. An ear drum is relatively tough, touching it wouldn't harm it.

    January 2, 2012 at 14:15 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Jessi

      The ear drum is only a few layers of tissue thick. It's not tough at all.

      January 23, 2012 at 13:27 | Report abuse |
  14. MasterofMeander

    I'm sorry, but for many of us articles like this one end with advice appropriate to another era. In this country, in this economy, the casual suggestion to "See your doctor" has a smug and cavalier ring. Consider: in Las Vegas they've shut hundreds of pts. out of the only non-private pay oncology treatment center, so many unemployed folks are now dying of curable cancers for lack of chemo and radiation regimens. But hey, "if your ears are really clogged up..."

    See your doctor. And while you're at it, "Eat cake."

    If there's any value here, and there is, it's found in the recommendations of posters who've developed viable methods of self-care.

    January 2, 2012 at 21:31 | Report abuse | Reply
  15. TallyChick

    Are people really jabbing their ears with q-tips? All you have to do is gently put the q-tip in your ear and rotate it while working your way deeper into the ear canal (obviously not too deep) and then rotate on your way out. Viola....clean ears! I do it every day, especially after showers to help get the water out of my ears!

    January 3, 2012 at 17:02 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Just to be annoying

      Ummmm......a viola is a musical instrument, larger than a violin, smaller than a cello. Perhaps you meant "voila?" That's French for "there you go."

      January 24, 2012 at 15:03 | Report abuse |
  16. johnway

    Yes, people really do harm themselves every year by using q-tipos in the ears. And for the record, the Ear syringe, water/olive oil/hydrogen peroxide methods are all very inexpensive (initial cash outlay for the synringes, and a ridiculously small amount for the oil/peroxide) and more effective than q-tips. They are also MUCH safer.

    January 3, 2012 at 19:35 | Report abuse | Reply
  17. Reggie

    The notion of Q-tips being meant to clean the outside of the ear only is pure hogwash. Manufacturers merely print that baloney on the packages to protect themselves from liability. What amazes me is that this "lunch for lawyers" has fully taken on a life of its own, and that some doctors are now parroting the myth as if it were true.

    I agree 100% with Martin's comment. Q-Tips are also for use inside the ear canal, even right up to the ear drum, just be skilled and careful and don't rush things.

    January 3, 2012 at 20:03 | Report abuse | Reply
  18. johnway

    Let me put it another way: a large portion of the US population still doesn't believe in evolution, and you trust these mental midgets to safely use q-tips?

    January 3, 2012 at 20:59 | Report abuse | Reply
  19. David

    since i was a kid i had too many ear infections because i didnt dry out my ear canall everytime i took a shower i take a swab soaked with 91% alcohol in my ears to let it dry out plus not much ear wax cause i use hearing aids

    January 10, 2012 at 00:57 | Report abuse | Reply
  20. Earache causes

    Started off excellent in your diet plan however operating directly into difficulty with exhaustion this is actually common among those who're trying to find genuinely low fat. Even though some tiredness ...ear wax removal

    January 13, 2012 at 19:48 | Report abuse | Reply
  21. Bionic

    I am SURPRISED that NO ONE has suggested the procedure of using a pet frog with a long tongue to clean up the ear wax. This is totally worth trying 🙂

    January 17, 2012 at 12:47 | Report abuse | Reply
    • JoAnne Longo

      What a terrific and fun response!

      January 24, 2012 at 07:44 | Report abuse |
  22. bruceUSA

    Sorry , I 've always had itchy ears and for the past 40+ yrs. have used cotton swabs and never had one bit of problems. Not going in and cleaning your ears is what causes the problems. Oh and by the way I hear fine and I play my trombone in perfect pitch. Thanks

    January 26, 2012 at 13:09 | Report abuse | Reply
  23. AmyS

    Hasn't anyone ever tried an ear candle? Those aren't invasive, don't hurt and clean the wax out nicely. All you need is someone to help you do it so they can monitor the flame for your safety.

    January 26, 2012 at 21:25 | Report abuse | Reply
    • kiwisoup

      ear candling is a hoax. they DO NOT work and there are several TV shows and youtube videos that disprove it. Not to mention it's dangerous to light something on fire that is sticking in your ear canal.

      January 19, 2013 at 02:40 | Report abuse |
  24. kim

    Nothing is more infuriating than other people telling me what to put in my ears. Well, there is one thing that's worse: people insisting that I must use soft bristle toothbrushes. I'm 53, it's my business.....stop with all this stuff, enough already!

    January 28, 2012 at 02:05 | Report abuse | Reply
    • kiwisoup

      you had me until the bristles part. hard bristles cause receding gums. I guess if that's worth it to you. Dentures are a blast, I hear.

      January 19, 2013 at 02:41 | Report abuse |
  25. Mr. Spork

    I use cotton swabs daily in my ear canals. I was taught at an early age to do it *properly* for safety. Rotate in and out, use your fingers to brace around your ear to carefully gauge depth, don't do it when there are people moving about that can bump into your elbow and most of all, use your sense of feel. If you go slow, you can tell when you are about to hit your eardrum and you can stop. Fibers at the tip of the swab almost always brush my eardrum. It's not painful but it is loud. I have touched the eardrum a bit harder and caused pain, but I have never perforated my eardrum. You back off, and be careful, that's all. Do it after a shower so the earwax is soft and damp, rotate so it does not compact against the eardrum and don't worry about getting it 100% clean as some earwax is good and necessary for proper ear health.

    February 7, 2013 at 04:51 | Report abuse | Reply
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