This is one of Dr. Karen’s favorite topics. If she could get all her patients to do just one thing (and sure there are lots of things… eat healthy, exercise, etc.) she would get them to stop cleaning their ears with cotton swabs. Why? What’s the big deal? Allow her to explain.
Ear Wax is Not Gross!
Ear wax is normal. We all have it. “It helps prevent injury and infection of the ear,” explains Dr. Karen. According to her, it provides a coating to the canal to prevent water damage, foreign bodies, trauma, and infection. You do not need to nor should you, clean your ear or remove the wax.
“Cotton swabs can push the wax deeper in to the ear causing impaction – or blocking of the ear canal,” says Dr. Karen. “The cotton swab can injure or scrape the canal leading to infection.” She adds that you can also damage the tympanic membrane, or inner ear, leading to permanent damage to the ear.
“You should never put anything smaller than your elbow in your ear,” notes Dr. Karen.
Is it Ever Okay to Use a Cotton Swab?
According to Dr. Karen, you can use a cotton swab to clean the outside of your ear. That’s it.
“Some people make too much wax or have a reason that the ear wax does not normally move through the canal – narrow canal, obstruction or thick, hard wax which can occur as you age,” says Dr. Karen. If ear wax builds up without normal clearance, it can cause symptoms of impaction including difficulty hearing, pain, ringing in the ears. In that case, you may need the wax removed by your provider. If you don’t have symptoms, you do NOT need and should not have the wax removed. Dr. Karen is very insistent on this this.
There are wax removal medications at the pharmacy, but “you should not use these without an exam if there is any concern of rupture of your tympanic membrane such as infection or trauma – pain, drainage, or hearing issues,” says Dr. Karen.
She says it’s easy for your provider to look in your ear to see if ear wax is the problem.
In the meantime, if you don’t have any symptoms, let your ear wax do its job. No cotton swabs!