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Why You Really, Truly Should Not Put Q-Tips Into Your Ears

Notice the warning. (Carey Goldberg/WBUR)

Notice the warning. (Carey Goldberg/WBUR)

Brilliant. Just brilliant. Do you think I may qualify for one of those Darwin awards? Here’s my sorry tale:

Many a morning, my ears are still wet from my shampoo when I insert my phone’s earpieces into them. One recent morning, a little light bulb lit up over my head: “Hey! I’ll lightly swab the water out with Q-tips to speed the drying process! Sure, there’s some advice I’m vaguely aware of that it’s really not healthy to insert Q-tips — or anything smaller than your elbow — into your ear, but just look at the little cotton domeheads on sticks! They’re so clearly engineered to enter an earhole, aren’t they?”

The swabbing felt good, and seemed to work. Just one small problem: Within days, I was experiencing occasional bouts of what I can only describe as indescribable weirdness. It was a sort of dislocating reality shift. A sudden sense that the world was off, and then righted itself again. Something like the feeling you get when you’re on a stationary train and don’t notice when it starts moving, then look out the window and see the landscape sliding by: a displacement, a minor sensory shock, a brief vertigo.

Dr. Jennifer Smullen (Courtesy of Mass. Eye and Ear)

With my few remaining brain cells, I made the wise decision to stop using the Q-tips, and the sensation abated a few days later. And in hopes that others may learn from my mistakes, I spoke today with Dr. Jennifer Smullen, an otologist and neurotologist (a specialist in surgery of the ear and nerves to the ear) at Massachusetts Eye and Ear. She was kind enough first to treat my sheepishness, and then to share wisdom that I hope spreads far and wide. Our conversation, lightly edited:

I am feeling very stupid at the moment…

Don’t feel stupid. This comes up over and over. I do not have a day that goes by that I do not address this issue.

Sigh. I’m feeling a little better. So why should I not have done what I did?

Number one, you would like to have some wax in your ears. The ear canal makes wax for a purpose. The wax in your ear waterproofs the ear canal and keeps water from going in and getting stuck, sort of like wax on your car. If you clean your ear with a Q-tip, that strips the wax and lets the water stay in.

So my trying to remove water with a Q-tip actually created a vicious cycle?

Exactly. So number one, you should leave the wax in your ears because it waterproofs them. It’s also a natural antibiotic. It’s naturally acidic and it prevents infection in your ear. So if you take away the wax, you’re more likely to get a swimmer’s ear infection. Third reason why you shouldn’t remove the wax with a Q-tip in particular is that at the end of the ear canal is the ear drum, and the ear drum is much closer to the outside than you might think. If you put a Q-tip in your ear so the entire cotton has gone in, you’re probably touching your ear drum. People always say they didn’t go in that far, and they always do.

And what’s the problem with reaching the ear drum?

The ear drum is very delicate, so you can puncture it with a Q-tip, and I’ve seen that many times. Continue reading