Drop the Q-tip! Why ENTs are begging you to leave your ears alone


Earwax is your friend — embrace it.


Turns out, earwax is nature’s ear soap. It lubricates the ear and carries away dead skin cells. It serves as a self-cleaning agent with protective, lubricating, and antibacterial properties. And without it, our ears get dry and itchy.


Yet many of us are still dead set on scraping our earwax out.


The fact is, earwax is constantly being moved out of your ear. Assisted by chewing and jaw motion, wax is moved from the ear canal to the ear opening where, most of the time, it dries, flakes, and falls out. Earwax is only formed in the outer one-third of the ear canal, so when it does end up packed up against the ear drum, it’s because it has been pushed back there — by a foreign object.


How Q-tips became enemy number one

There are many useful functions for cotton swabs — applying make-up, cleaning jewelry, spreading glue — cleaning ear canals is not one of them. For years, boxes of cotton swabs have carried a warning: "Do not insert inside the ear canal." And yet, people continue to do just that.


Vis: Q-tip warning


While people assume they are just keeping their ears tidy, using a cotton swab in their ear can cause damage and affect hearing. Delicate ears drums can be perforated by a cotton swab — or any other long, narrow object. Using them to “clean” ears can cause cerumen impaction, otherwise known as ear wax build-up. According to Dr. Romaneschi, a partner at Sierra Nevada Ear, Nose & Throat, “Honestly, the ear canal should never be cleaned. You can certainly wipe the outside of the ear, but you should never go down the canal.”


Here is what can happen when cotton swabs or other objects push wax back down in the ear canal:

  • Hearing loss
  • Tinnitus, ringing, or noises in the ear
  • Sensation that the ear is plugged
  • Earache
  • Ear infection
  • Itching, odor, or discharge
  • Coughing


In 2012, the Medicare program paid nearly $47 million for more than a million removals of earwax balls — many of which were caused, or exacerbated, by the attempt to “clean” the ear canal with an object like a cotton swab. 


This is why Dr. Romaneschi, the American Academy of Otolaryngology and ENTs across this country implore you to heed their advice.


When ear wax removal is warranted

If you experience sudden hearing loss, or one of the other symptoms described above, see an ear, nose and throat specialist. You could be experiencing earwax impaction, or you could have another condition. An ENT can both properly diagnose and treat the problem.


If ear wax removal is warranted, the ENT has some options:

  • Flushing the ear out with a water solution
  • Manually removing the earwax using medical instruments
  • Prescribing ear drops to soften the wax, enabling it to come out more easily


If the above has not driven the point home, let us reiterate, don’t attempt to remove compacted earwax on your own. “Between inadvertently damaging the ear canal and just not being effective in your efforts to remove the wax, we strongly recommend seeing a medical professional,” says Romaneschi. “We’ve got the right tools for the job.”


If you suspect you have earwax impaction, contact Sierra Nevada Earn, Nose, Throat team at 775.883.7666. They will assess your condition and provide effective treatment.

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