Stop and step away from the Q-tips!

It was a beautiful Saturday morning when my neighbor showed up at my door looking a bit sheepish.  He claimed to have the end of a cotton swab (from here on in referred to as "Q-tip ®) stuck in his ear canal. A quick look in with my otoscope confirmed this and I was able to safely remove it.  He claimed to have been 'itching' his ear canals with it when the end snapped off. Yikes! That was some itch. It was also a cheap brand of swabs, not the famed Q-tip brand, which may have added to the problem. Either way, sticking a Q-tip straight into the ear canal is a big No-No!  

Despite it's size, shape and reputation, Q-tips were not developed to use directly in the ear canal.  The official Q-tip website ( lists numerous uses of their product, under the tab 'Tip Jar".  So aside from using the swabs to apply make-up or cleaning small crevices on your dog's face (yes this is a real tip from the Tip Jar! Ew.), can you use them safely on/in your ears? The answer is Yes! And No. Yes, they can be used to clean the outer portions of the ear,  around the pinna, but not into the canal. What can happen if you give into the temptation a put the Q-tip into your ear canal? Sometimes nothing, but it's not worth the risk. The adult ear canal is less than half an inch long.  At the end of the canal is the tympanic membrane, or eardrum. When the sound waves travel down the canal, they cause the eardrum to vibrate and pass on the sound energy through the middle ear and on to the cochlea, the sensory organ of hearing. Some possible complications of inserting a Q-tip, or any small small object, into the canal include: 

  • perforating the eardrum
  • pushing the wax further into the canal, causing blockage, which may result in: 
    • hearing loss
    • dizziness
    • tinnitus (ringing in the ears)
    • pain 
    • infection of the ear canal 

Before you ask how to safely remove wax from the ear, keep in mind that the wax you are trying to eliminate has an important function in the ear. It acts as a protective layer in the canal, protecting it from water, infections and occasionally trapping foreign bodies. The ear also has a pretty efficient cleaning system: the wax and debris move laterally through the canal; from the eardrum out to the pinna portion.  As long as there is nothing obstructing the outer part of the canal, pieces of wax, skin and debris leave the canal a little bit at a time. The problem arises when we insert something into the ear canal, pushing the wax, etc. the wrong way, deeper into the canal.  If someone has something in their ear for extended periods of time (earbuds, hearing devices, etc) the wax may end up just sitting there and not fall out naturally, leading to impacted wax.  Other factors that may lead to 'wax issues' are hereditary: some people make more wax than others, and age. As we age the canal may narrow and wax may have difficulty getting out. 

Regardless of the cause, if you are worried that you have too much wax, visit a health care professional. The only way to determine if there is in fact a problem is to look in the canal with an otoscope. If there is wax that needs to be removed,  your audiologist, doctor or nurse can safely remove it.  If, like my neighbor, itchiness is the issue, it is time to visit a medical professional as to the root cause (allergy, infection).  

One last bit of trivia. Any guesses that the Q in Q-tip stands for? The answer is one of the following:  

  • Quiet
  • Quality
  • Quick 

The answer will be post later!