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Cotton Swabs Linked to Child Ear Injuries

Posted 1/1/2018 by Jay Shah, MD
Pediatric Otolaryngologist, UH Rainbow Babies & Children’s
Assistant Professor, Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine

Jar of cotton swabs

As a child, you were probably told to clean inside your ears. But one common cleaning method – scrubbing inside the ear with a cotton swab – could be doing more harm than good.

Child ear injuries by the numbers

A recent study looked at emergency room and doctor’s office visits to treat ear injuries related to cotton swabs among children between 1990 and 2010. During that time, there were more than 263,000 of these injuries – about 12,540 every year.

Younger children were injured more often – 67 percent of all patients were younger than age 8. About 40 percent were age 3 or younger. Most of the injuries occurred while using a cotton swab to clean inside one’s own ears. Injury types included bleeding, ear pain, hearing loss and dizziness.

Control earwax without swabs

Jay Shah, MD

Jay Shah, MD

Earwax is perfectly natural. Jay Shah, MD, a pediatric otolaryngologist with UH Rainbow Babies & Children’s, says, “Your body produces earwax as a way to clean the ear canal, as well as lubricate it and protect it from bacteria.”

Dr. Shah advises, “In general, ear canals do not need to be cleaned unless earwax starts building up near the outside of the ear. Even then, a damp cloth will usually do the trick.”

Using a cotton swab to clean inside the ear can lead to impacted earwax, which can cause:

  • Hearing loss
  • Ringing in the ears
  • Itching
  • Pain
  • Rarely, trauma to the eardrum

“If you’re worried about earwax building up inside the ear, try other options, such as earwax removal drops or baby oil, which can be performed at home. Please NEVER use cotton swabs to clean the ears. Please leave it to a health professional to clean earwax if needed,” says Dr. Shah.

Have a question?

Call our pediatric advice line 24/7 at 216-815-0059 to get an answer from one of our pediatric experts.

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