Health Topics

Healthy Living

April 2012
Cotton Ear Buds: Tread Carefully
Dr R Balaji
Cotton ear buds that are readily available in drug stores and supermarkets are commonly used to clean the ears, remove wax and for relief in case of itching in the ear. In some, the use of ear buds to clean the ear turns out to be a habit in itself, so much so, that it is a daily routine, like brushing the teeth or bathing..

Cotton ear buds are used not only by adults but also by children – either by themselves or helped by their parents. Though they supposedly represent a safe means of cleaning the ear, there exist potentially dangerous complications that people are unaware of.

What Is Ear Wax?
Ear wax is a collection of dirt, dead skin and cerumen that is naturally produced in the outer part of external ear canal. It helps prevent dirt, dead skin and hair from getting lodged too far into the ear. Wax contains protective antibacterial and lubricating properties. Therefore, it should not normally be removed, but Cotton Ear Buds: Tread Carefully Dr R Balaji be left to naturally migrate out of the ear by itself. Even excess wax that is produced is pushed out of the ear canal naturally, helped by the chewing motion of the jaw. Inserting small objects into the ear can damage the natural wax build up, causing it to compact, creating blockages and infection. Excess earwax in the external ear canal is associated with symptoms of earache, fullness in the ears, and diminished hearing.

Risks Of Using Cotton Ear Buds
  • On occasions, the use of an ear bud traumatises the ear canal and leads to several complications.
  • Trauma to the ear canal can sometimes lead to a condition called “Otitis externa”.
  • The cotton bud introduces bacteria and fungi into the ear canal and if the epithelium is traumatised, fungal or bacterial infection will set in easily.
  • Ear wax is produced only in the outer part of the ear canal. (The epitheliumof the external canal has a special character wherein the epithelium grows outwards and towards the pinna with the wax. The earwax then falls off.) Use of Cotton buds can push in the wax deeper into the external ear canal. When this accumulates over time, it can cause impacted earwax.
  • There is also the risk of laceration in the ear canal and perforation of the tympanic membrane or ear drum.
Cotton ear buds may be used only rarely. Limit it to just once a month, to dislodge the wax in the outermost part of the ear.

When Are Cotton Buds Useful?
  • To mop out water when water enters the ear accidentally (during bathing, swimming or washing).
  • For aural toileting or cleaning the ear in case of ear discharge.
  • To clean when wax builds up in the ears of those who use hearing aids.
  • The cotton bud you use should have a SOFT tip that does not injure the ear canal.
  • Use it only to mop out water or discharge in the ear canal and, NOT for emoving earwax or relief from an itchy ear canal.
  • Let children be aware that earwax should not be removed with cotton
  • Earwax will fall out naturally. In case it doesn’t, softening the wax with
    earwax softener will help.
  • Those suffering from itchy or painful ears should visit their ENT surgeon
    rather than try to fix the problem themselves.
  • Irrational daily use of cotton ear buds is absolutely unnecessary and may
    be a dangerous practice.
Dr R Balaji is Consultant ENT Surgeon Apollo Hospitals, Chennai
  • The information on this site does not constitute medical advice and is not intended to be a substitute for medical care provided by a physician.
  • See additional information.