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Are Q tips dangerous?

Everything you need to know about how to safely clean your ears.


By Christopher Hilton, MD
August 21, 2018

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When our ears are itchy or plugged with ear wax, a lot of people turn to Q tips. We do this even though the Q tip package and the American Academy of Otolaryngology warns us of the dangers of putting them in our ears. But are they really that unsafe?

The truth about ear wax

It’s unfortunate that ear wax is brown because people assume it’s dirty. But it’s actually healthy and good for us. It kills bacteria and lubricates our ear canals.

Ear wax prevents bacteria from causing ear infections. It also makes our ear canals comfortable by preventing the skin from drying out.

Can Q tips cause damage?

It’s rare that Q tips would cause any permanent damage. Your ears have a lot of nerve endings that send powerful feedback to your brain telling you that what you’re doing is painful. It’s also unlikely you could puncture your ear drum while cleaning your ears with Q tips.

The tympanic membrane perforations I’ve seen from Q tips have all come from accidents that have happened. I’ve seen patients who fell in the bathroom while they had a Q tip in their ear and it popped the ear drum. I’ve seen children who were playing with a Q tip and their sibling pushed it deeper into their ear. I can’t say I’ve ever seen someone damage their ear drum from carefully Q tipping.

The biggest danger with Q tips isn’t puncturing your ear drum, though. When you use Q tips, the goal is to remove ear wax. While you might get some ear wax out, the majority is actually pushed deeper into your ear canal. This can lead to a vicious cycle of feeling like your ears are dirty, using Q tips and pushing more wax deeper in your ears.

I see a lot of people who have ear canal infections or 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.

How should you clean your ears?

For the vast majority of people, cleaning the inside of your ears is not necessary at all. Again, ear wax is healthy. Plus, it naturally migrates out on its own.

But if you have brown ear wax that’s visible and you don’t like how it looks, it is possible to successfully clean your ears with Q tips. Just be careful, and only clean your outer ear around the canal. There are also drops that help remove ear wax that you can buy over the counter.

If you use Q tips to dry out your ears after a shower or swimming, try a blow dryer instead. And if you ever think your ears are plugged because of an infection, there are over-the-counter decongestants you can use that should help. Don’t use Q tips in this situation because it will only make the issue worse.

Q tips aren’t always going to lead to problems, and I do see a lot of people who use them whose ears are just fine. But when I see someone with a big wax impaction, it’s almost always because of Q tips. That’s why I urge you to give these alternatives that I’ve mentioned a try. And if they don’t work to unplug your ears, I recommend visiting your primary care doctor, an audiologist, or an ear, nose and throat doctor.

About Christopher Hilton, MD

Dr. Christopher Hilton is an otolaryngology physician at HealthPartners Como Clinic. His special interest is in problems of the ear. He treats chronic ear infections, hearing loss, vertigo and tumors of the hearing and balance nerve. He finds it rewarding to help people understand what’s wrong with their ear, and to make it better. Outside of work, Dr. Hilton enjoys swimming, sailing and canoeing.

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