If your ears are feeling full, do you reach for a Q-tip? You wouldn’t be the first. However, using cotton swabs to clean out your ear canal can actually do more harm than good.

Read on to learn why you shouldn’t stick Q-tips in your ears and how to safely keep your ears clean.

For starters, do you need to clean your ears?

For the vast majority of people, cleaning the inside of your ears is not necessary at all. But what if they are filled with earwax?

Here’s the thing: just because earwax is brown, doesn’t mean that it’s dirty. Earwax is actually healthy and good for us. It kills bacteria and lubricates our ear canals.

Plus, earwax naturally comes out on its own. When you chew, it pushes the earwax out to the opening. Even the process of growing new skin can push out the older earwax. So, usually just regular bathing is enough to keep your ears free and clear.

When and how often should you clean your ears?

While ears are pretty much self-cleaning, some people have so much earwax that it blocks or partially blocks the ear canal. If this happens, your ears may feel full or you may have problems hearing.

If you have a lot of earwax and it’s bugging you, it’s fine to clean your ears – just do it carefully and infrequently. About once a month is enough.

Can I use a Q-tip to clean my ears?

It’s common practice to use Q-tips to clean ears. So, do you really need to keep Q-tips far away from your ears? The truth is that that it depends on how you’re using them.

When you can use Q-tips to clean your ears

If you have brown earwax that’s visible and you don’t like how it looks, you can use a Q-tip to carefully clean only your outer ear around the canal.

When you shouldn’t use Q-tips to clean your ears

Here’s what the warning on the package of Q-tips says, “Do not insert swab into ear canal. Entering the ear canal could cause injury.”

So, why is that warning on the Q-tip package? Are they really that unsafe?

Can Q-tips cause damage?

The short answer is yes – but maybe not in the way that you think. The following are some ways that you can damage your ears by using Q-tips.

Puncturing or tearing your eardrum

It’s possible, but very unlikely, that you’ll poke a hole in your eardrum, also known as the tympanic membrane, while cleaning your ears with Q-tips. Your ears have a lot of nerve endings that send powerful feedback to your brain telling you that what you’re doing is painful. So, most people would stop before they pushed a Q-tip in too far and cause permanent damage.

Most eardrum tears from Q-tips come from accidents that happen while the swab is in their ear. For example, someone falling in the bathroom while they had a Q-tip in their ear may pop an eardrum. If carefully using a Q-tip to clean your ears, it’s unlikely that it would cause eardrum damage.

Clogged ears after using Q-tips

The biggest danger with Q-tips isn’t puncturing your eardrum, though.

While you might get some earwax out with a Q-tip, the majority is actually pushed deeper into your ear canal. This can lead to impacted earwax and a vicious cycle of feeling like your ears are dirty, using Q-tips and pushing more wax deeper in your ears.

Trouble hearing after cleaning ears with Q-tips

All this extra earwax is why some people can’t hear after cleaning their ears with a Q-tip. I see a lot of people who complain about hearing problems. When I look into their ears and see it’s filled with wax from the canal to the drum, the first question I ask is if they use Q-tips. And they almost always do.

Can Q-tips cause tinnitus?

Tinnitus is a specific type of hearing problem – and there’s a good chance you’ve had it at some point in your life. If the room around you is silent and you can hear a ringing, buzzing, swishing or other noises in your ears, you are likely experiencing tinnitus.

As to the question if Q-tips can cause tinnitus? The answer is yes, and it goes back to having clogged ears. When earwax builds up against your eardrum, it changes the pressure in your ear, so you can’t hear as well.

But if you have tinnitus, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you have too much earwax. Tinnitus can also be caused by damage to the hearing nerve, medications, loud events like a Vikings Game, infections and improper use of earbuds.

Most of the time it’s nothing to worry about and it will go away on its own. But if it doesn’t, consider talking to an audiologist, a doctor that specializes in hearing loss issues.

Ear infections after using Q-tips

It’s also possible to get an ear infection from using Q-tips. While you’re trying to pull earwax out of the ear canal, you’re also pushing things like dead cells and bacteria in. Sometimes this can result in an infection in the ear canal.

You can also get an infection in your outer ear, where it’s generally okay to use a Q-tip. The cause is usually overcleaning, resulting in damaged skin which allows bacteria to get in, causing an infection. If you ever think your ears are plugged because of a sinus infection, there are over-the-counter decongestants you can use that should help. Definitely don’t use Q-tips in this situation because it will only make the issue worse.

Blood on Q-tip after cleaning ears

If you discover that your ear is bleeding after using a Q-tip, there could many possible causes. First, look for a pimple or a small cut or wound that could be present in the outer ear. A Q-tip could puncture a pimple or aggravate a cut that could cause bleeding.

It’s also possible to scratch your ear drum while using a cotton swab or sticking a sharp fingernail into your ear. This bleeding typically stops on its own.

Other causes of bleeding in the ears could be due to a punctured eardrum, an ear infection, head trauma, or other causes. If bleeding is persistent, see your doctor.

How to clean your ears without Q-tips

So, what should you use instead of Q-tips? The good news is that there are at-home earwax treatments that work great to remove small amounts of earwax. However, if you have a lot of earwax or it’s impacted, you’ll likely need to see a doctor to remove it – but more on that later.

Use a moistened cotton ball

This is the simplest method to removing small amounts of earwax. And chances are you have everything you need at home. Here’s how to do it:

  1. Soak a cotton ball in mineral oil, olive oil, a saline solution or hydrogen peroxide, which can do a good job breaking down the earwax.
  2. Tilt your head to the side so that your ear points up.
  3. Drip a couple drops from the cotton ball into your ear.
  4. Keep your head in that position for a couple minutes. During that time, the liquid should loosen up the earwax.
  5. Tilt your head to the other side allowing the fluid to fall out. Have a tissue handy to soak up the liquid.

Use ear cleaning drops

If a moist cotton ball doesn’t loosen things up, another option is over-the-counter eardrops – there are water-based drops and oil-based drops. Water-based drops usually include ingredients like hydrogen peroxide to break down the wax. Oil-based ear cleaning drops make the earwax slippery and soft. Both types of drops work well. So, choose the one that you prefer.

The process for using eardrops is very similar as using a moist cotton ball.

  1. Tilt your head to the side.
  2. Squirt the recommended number of drops into your ear and then let the drops sit in your ear for a few minutes.
  3. When you sit up, use a tissue to collect the liquid.

Use a bulb syringe

If you try using a moistened cotton ball or eardrops, and your ears still feel full, you can follow-up the process with a bulb syringe. But skip using a bulb syringe if you have eardrum damage or had ear surgery. Here’s what to do:

  1. Fill the bulb syringe with warm water.
  2. Tilt your head up and pull your ear lobe back.
  3. Gently the squeeze the water into your ear canal and let sit for a couple of minutes.
  4. Use a tissue to collect the wax when you sit up.

Use a blow-dryer

A blow-dryer can be a powerful add-on to any of the methods mentioned above. After you drain the earwax from your ear, set a blow-dryer on low and hold it about 3-4 inches away from your ear until your ear feels completely dry.

Also, it’s a great idea to blow-dry your ears after every bath or shower. It’s better for your ears than rubbing them dry or using a Q-tip to get the water out.

Get help from a professional

If you have a lot of earwax – or if it’s jammed deep into your ear canal, it’s best to get help from a doctor.

Sometimes a primary care doctor will be able remove it during an appointment. Other times you’ll need to see an ear, nose and throat (ENT) doctor who will use a special tool to look into your ear, loosen the wax and gently suction it out.

A doctor will also be able to provide recommendations for how you can safely remove earwax at home if necessary.

We can help you with earwax, hearing problems and more

Q-tips aren’t always going to lead to problems – a lot of people use them, and their ears are just fine. But when someone has a big wax impaction, it’s almost always because of Q-tips.

Give the methods above a try. And if they don’t work to unplug your ears, make an appointment with your doctor.

Also, make sure to contact a doctor if you experience any of the following:

  • trouble hearing
  • ear pain
  • blood on the Q-tip after cleaning your ears
  • drainage from your ears

These symptoms may be related to other conditions that require medical treatment.