UTG Medical Students’ Association Why you should never clean your ear with cotton buds

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By Lamin O Beyai
Final year medical student

The ear, like several other organs in the body is a naturally self-cleansing organ. It cleans itself by producing wax (cerumen) which collects dirt, bacteria and other debris. The wax gradually comes out of the ear through jaw motions like chewing or talking. Using cotton buds to clean the inside of our ears is a very common practice in our setting so much so that not using it sounds quite counter intuitive. Growing up, cotton buds were always a part of my Mom’s arsenal of materials she uses to clean us and this is probably so in most Gambian households.

Having earwax in your ear is actually a very good thing, it helps lubricate our ear canals, keeps little bugs from crawling in and prevents fungus from growing around the eardrums. The wax is acidic in nature and has very important contents like immunoglobulins, lysosomes, lipids and other elements which help fight against microorganisms. Our body is highly functional and organs like the ear are so wonderful that rarely needs help in doing its own cleaning.

A popular saying by most doctors specialized in ear care is “Do not put anything in your ears smaller than your elbow”. This includes things like pins, cotton swabs, paper corners or even our famous feathers may actually cause more harm than good. Here are some of the reasons why.

When you insert something like a cotton swab into your ear, it pushes the wax deeper into your ear instead of removing it as it is supposed to. This makes the wax move closer to your eardrum and prevents it from vibrating properly. This can cause hearing problems. Having plenty earwax accumulating in the ear is called earwax impaction and this is mostly what we are trying to avoid in the first place.

Moving the cotton bud deep into your ears can also cause one to puncture your ear, which can be very traumatizing and could affect long term hearing capabilities, especially if the eardrum is injured. Using cotton buds may cause the cotton to remain in the ear and this may subsequently cause an ear infection. This is because of the excessive humidity and removal of the ear’s natural defence mechanism, i.e. earwax.

The only people who need to clean their ears are those with earwax impaction. This could present in several ways. Ear pain, fullness or ringing of the ear, impaired hearing in the affected ear, bad ear odour and sometimes dizziness and cough. Signs of ear infection include ear pain, fluid discharge or poor hearing and this is a sign that you ned to see the doctor urgently, do not under any circumstances stay home or attempt to use earbuds to clean it out.

Those at risk of having impactions are those who use earplugs or aides. People with wax impactions who don’t treat it or don’t treat it well may develop further ear problems or even loose hearing in that ear. The best way to remove earwax build-ups is to visit a doctor and special instruments are used; these are forceps, suction devices or special spoons to remove earwax.

Several other methods are recommended to clean the ear, use the cotton swabs or damp cloth to clean the outside of the ear. Earwax softeners with olive oil, hydrogen peroxide or saline could also be used to soften the earwax and then ear drained. Syringes with warm saline can also be used to irrigate the ear and this is actually quite effective especially if preceded by earwax softeners.

We can protect our ears by not inserting any small thing into the ear, limit exposure to loud noises or wear protective headgear when near them, keep headphones below the sound limit (if someone near you hears the sound then its probably too loud), dry your ears by tilting it after swimming and don’t forget to clean the external part and MOST IMPORTANTLY; see a doctor as soon as possible if you notice sudden pain, hearing loss or any injury to the ear.