To Swab or Not To Swab

Huong Fralin's picture
By Huong Fralin on July 15, 2019

The verdict is in: don’t stick a cotton swab in your ear! Or anything else, for that matter.

As satisfying as it may be to try to clean your ears with a cotton swab, the reality is, you’re not really cleaning them at all. You’re pushing the wax in deeper, which can eventually cause damage and hearing loss.

Cotton swabs push more than 90 percent of earwax deeper than it belongs, to where it can’t get out. 

“Obstructive problems with earwax almost only happen in cases involving cotton swabs,” says Ear, Nose and Throat (ENT) specialist Ben Cable, M.D, section chief of Carilion Clinic’s Otolaryngology Clinic. “Obstructive problems don’t happen on their own—ears are made to clean themselves.”

Earwax is acidic, and its purpose is to protect the ear canal from infections. It is antibacterial and antifungal and is only made in the outer part of the ear canal.

“While cotton swabs can help remove little pieces of wax, what often happens is that you’re pushing more than 90 percent of it deeper where it can’t get out. Over time, as you consistently try to clean your ears with swabs, you’re pushing it until it clogs things up or causes problems,” says Dr. Cable.

A blocked ear canal can increase your chances for ear infections, which affects the sections of your ear behind the eardrum. It can also cause swimmer’s ear, which is an infection in the outer ear canal.

Putting fingers, cotton swabs or other objects in your ears can also lead to infections by damaging the thin layer of skin lining the ear canal.

woman with blonde hair applying over-the-counter ear drops to remove ear wax
Over-the-counter ear drops are a safer option than cotton swabs, and much more effective.

Everybody produces different amounts of earwax. So how are we supposed to clean it out?

Home Care
Place a washcloth over your finger and sweep the outside of your ear canals. Don’t stick anything in your ear.

If your ear is clogged, over-the-counter ear drops can be found at your local pharmacy. Made of an oily hydrogen peroxide, they will safely liquify earwax a little bit at a time.

Medical Care
Earwax can be flushed out in a clinical setting, such as your care provider’s office.

You can also schedule a visit to see an ENT specialist who is equipped with special instruments to properly remove wax impactions. You don't need a referral to see a specialist at Carilion’s Otolaryngology Clinic.

If you experience sudden hearing loss without a good explanation—such as after using a cotton swab—schedule an appointment to see your doctor immediately. Other factors could be at play when it comes to hearing loss, and the sooner you treat the symptoms, the better.