The Q-Tip Addiction

There it is again. That itchy, nagging feeling. It seems to come every day. There is only one thing that can alleviate the feeling: Q-Tips. The dependence on Q-Tips is prevalent but the addiction isn’t something that has come forth in recent years. In 1923, Leo Gerstenzang, upon observing his wife apply wads of cotton to toothpicks, invented the first ready-to-use cotton swab. He marketed them as baby care accessories. Since then, the Q-Tip has truly expanded its use from a baby care accessory…marketing towards everything from a makeup accessory to an ear-cleaning device.


The Q-Tip, when used in the ear, is extremely dangerous to your health. If you’re a loyal patron of the cheap multi-use cotton swabs, your addiction arises from one of these reasons:

  1. A perception that ear wax is dirty or unnecessary. Many people believe that ear wax is a gross, unhygienic visitor of our ears.
  2. The itch-scratch cycle. The more you use Q-Tips, the more your ears itch. The more your ears itch, the more you use Q-Tips. The more you use…
  3. Using Q-Tips feels GREAT…so you do it again. This is due to the number of highly sensitive nerve endings in your ear that are connected to many internal organs. The stimulation of these nerves is pleasurable and addicting.


Q-tips are great, right? Cleaning out unnecessary earwax, stimulating our sensitive, never-touched nerves and taking care of that annoying itch. WRONG! Unfortunately Q-Tips are doing more harm than good for our ears. First, Q-Tips tend to push earwaxfig-3-cartilage-and-bone further into the ear. The ear canal is one-third bony and two-thirds cartilaginous. The part made of cartilage is closer to our pinna (outer ear ) and contains the glands that produce the earwax. The part of the canal surrounded by bone sits further into the ear, right next to the eardrum. Using a Q-Tip can push this earwax into the bony portion of the ear canal, making it impossible for the ear to naturally rid itself of the wax. Second, too much cleaning can lead to ear and skin complications, everything from ear infections to eczema present in the outer ear. Lastly, using Q-Tips increases the chances of poking a whole in the eardrum. Doctors and audiologists have heard hundreds of stories of someone knocking someone’s arm while they were using a Q-Tip…causing a perforation (hole) in the tympanic membrane (eardrum). Therefore, it’s probably safest to follow the old adage of putting “nothing in your ear smaller than your elbow.

But how can you get that earwax out of your ears?? You don’t! Cerumen, or earwax, is actually good for your ear canals. Like tears help lubricate and protect our eyeballs, earwax acts a self-cleaning agent to protect, lubricate and provide antibacterial properties to the canal. Earwax traps dirt and contaminants (EVEN BUGS) before they have the ability of reaching your inner ear. Some people are REALLY waxy though…and the need to remove earwax seems more imminent. Excessive earwax can be genetic or it can be caused by irritated ear canals. Using your earbuds to much or a skin condition like eczema can cause irritated ear canals. If you’re susceptible to excess earwax, it is possible you could experience impacted cerumen. Impacted cerumen can impact the ability to hear, causing earaches, fullness in the ears, tinnitus (ringing), itching and coughing.

So how do you clean out that pesky, annoying earwax? You don’t! Ears are self-cleaning so routine bathing should take care of any remaining earwax in the canal. Old earwax is typically transported out the ear with chewing movements (it dries out, flakes off and falls out naturally). If you have excess cerumen, you should visit your primary care physician for them to remove the wax or help you create a cerumen management plan. It is not uncommon to have “waxy ears”! It is likely that your physician (or audiologist) will suggest wax-softening drops (such as Debrox) to soften the wax so they can remove the cerumen with ease. Skin in the ear canal is extremely sensitive and thin. Earwax that has been in the canal for a while is likely to attach to the canal wall and tear the skin during removal. The softening process is extremely important for diabetics, as tearing the ear canal skin off the wall can cause bleeding that may not be easily stopped.

Improper use of Q-Tips causes an “earache for patients and a headache for doctors.” Here are some things NOT to do:

  1. Don’t use Q-tips!! If you can’t go cold turkey because of your addiction, at least limit your cleaning. Also, line up a fingernail at the point where the cotton meets the Q-Tip stick to ensure it doesn’t go too deep.
  2. Don’t try flushing out your earwax at home. Flushing out the ear canal runs the risk of eardrum rupture.
  3. Don’t use ear candles! The most common injuries with ear candles include burns, obstruction of the ear canal with the wax or a perforation of the eardrum. Since 1996, the FDA has taken regulatory actions against ear candles because they are considered an “imminent danger to health.”


So if Q-Tips are so bad, why are they still being sold?!

The FDA says Q-Tips are “used to apply medications to, or to take specimens from, a patient.” This is the same description seen for cotton balls. Although the Consumer Product Safety Commission is tracking all injuries related to cotton balls, it is not for cotton swabs. A 2011 study by Henry Ford Hospital found a direct association between the use of cotton swabs inside ears and ruptured eardrums. They also noted in their study that more than 50% of patients seen in otolaryngology clinics, regardless of their primary complaint, admit to using cotton swabs to clean their ears. Despite how many individuals use Q-Tips, it’s hard to know the exact number of injuries. As FDA spokeswoman, Deborah Kotz, said, “It would be very tedious to figure out how many injuries associated with cotton swabs were reported each year.” But we don’t need the figures to know that Q-Tips are one of the top contributors to ear problems.


Stop the addiction. Quit the Q-Tips.




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Washington Post

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