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Many people use cotton swabs to clean their ears.

The reason for this is often to clear earwax from the ear canal. However, while it’s safe to clean the outside of your ear with a cotton swab, it’s best to avoid using them inside your ear.

Using cotton swabs inside your ear is associated with a variety of complications, including injury and infection.

Continue reading as we delve deeper into this topic and discuss ways you can safely clean your ears.

Earwax is actually helpful to your ears. It keeps them from getting too dry, traps dirt, and prevents bacteria from reaching deeper into your ear.

Over time, earwax naturally migrates to the outside of the ear where it can be cleared away.

Because your ears are self-cleaning, it’s often unnecessary to clean them yourself. However, one survey study still found that 68 percent of respondents said they used cotton swabs to clean their ears.

But inserting a cotton swab into your ear can cause a variety of problems. These can include:

Earwax impaction

Using a cotton swab to try to clear earwax from your ear can actually push the earwax deeper in. This can prevent earwax from naturally clearing and cause it to build up inside your ear.

The accumulation of too much earwax can lead to unpleasant symptoms. These can include things like:

Injury

Inserting a cotton swab too far into your ear can potentially injure the structures of your middle ear. One common ear injury related to cotton swab use is a ruptured eardrum.

A study from 2017 looked at cotton swab–related ear injuries in children between the years of 1990 and 2010. They found that about 73 percent of ear injuries from cotton swabs were associated with ear cleaning.

Another study reviewed 80 cases of ruptured eardrum. While blunt trauma, such as from an assault, was found to be the most common cause of the condition, a penetrating injury was found to be the cause in 44 percent of the cases.

Infections

Earwax helps trap and slow the growth of bacteria that have entered your ear canal. Using a cotton swab can push earwax and the bacteria it contains farther into your ear, potentially leading to an ear infection.

Foreign body in the ear

In some cases, part of the tip of the cotton swab may come off inside your ear. This can lead to feelings of discomfort, fullness, or pain. In some cases, hearing loss can occur.

One study investigated objects that commonly accounted for emergency room visits for a foreign body in the ear. Cotton swabs were one of the most common foreign objects in adults.

So, what can you do if you’ve already used a cotton swab in your ear and begin to feel pain?

In the short term, you can use over-the-counter pain medication, such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen, to help relieve pain. If ear pain doesn’t go away after 3 days of home care, make an appointment with your doctor.

If you use a cotton swab in your ear and feel a sudden, sharp pain that’s accompanied by other symptoms like muffled hearing or ringing in your ears, see a healthcare provider right away. You may have an ear injury.

If you’d like to safely remove earwax from your ear, follow the four steps below:

  1. Soften. Use a dropper to carefully add a few drops of baby oil, mineral oil, or glycerin into your ear. This helps soften the earwax.
  2. Irrigate. A couple of days after softening the earwax, irrigate your ear. Use a bulb syringe to add warm water to your ear canal.
  3. Drain. After irrigating, gently tip your head to the side to allow the water to drain from your ear.
  4. Dry. Use a clean towel to dry the outer part of your ear.

People who have tubes in their ears or think they have an ear infection or a ruptured eardrum should avoid cleaning their ears in this way.

What else to avoid

In addition to cotton swabs, there are other ear cleaning methods to avoid. These include ear candles and commercially available suction devices. Remember, the safest way to have excess earwax removed is by a healthcare provider.

Generally speaking, you shouldn’t typically need to see a healthcare provider to have your ears cleaned. However, sometimes earwax can build up or become too hard to be naturally cleared, even if you don’t use cotton swabs in your ear.

Make an appointment with your doctor to have them check your ears if you experience any of the following symptoms, whether or not you’ve used a cotton swab:

Because your ears are self-cleaning, it’s often not necessary to remove earwax. Using cotton swabs to clean inside your ears can cause a variety of ear problems, including things like earwax impaction, injury, and infection.

If you must clean your ears, first soften the earwax and then irrigate your ear with warm water, allowing it to drain. Never insert an object like a cotton swab into your ear.

See your doctor if you experience ear pain, ears that feel plugged up, or loss of hearing. While these symptoms could be related to accumulation of earwax, they could also be due to another health condition that requires treatment.