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Who doesn’t enjoy sticking a cotton bud in their ear? To twist gently, pull it out and examine the white tip turned to yellow? Q-tips were part of many childhoods. The Q-tips website has users sharing how they use buds to clean not only ears but toilet cisterns and pistols. Which is just as well, as guidelines released last week by the American Academy of Otolaryngology – Head and Neck Surgery Foundation, state that cotton buds should not be used for cleaning ears.

The solution

Buds don’t remove wax so much as push it down the ear canal so that it impacts on the ear drum. And there is no need to remove wax anyway – it protects our ears from infection and damage, has antibacterial properties, and traps dust and dirt in the ear canal, thereby stopping it from reaching the more delicate eardrum. This self-cleansing includes a conveyor belt mechanism by which old wax is shunted out of the ear canal to the opening of the ear by the movement of the jaw through eating or talking. The old, dry wax flakes off or gets washed off in the shower. Wax is made in the outer third of the ear canal, so when it is seen piled up against the eardrum it is often because we have shoved it down there ourselves. The bottom line is that most ears do not need to be cleaned, except on the outside.

Impacted wax can cause earache, a sense of the ear having a plug in it, hearing loss or ringing in the ears. However, one in 20 adults do make more wax and or can’t get rid of it; hearing-aid users often have accumulated wax, for instance. But cotton buds will still only make things worse. Medical students are taught not to put anything smaller than your elbow into your ear, but a study of 141 health professionals found that more than 90% stuck cotton buds, matchsticks and even safety pins in their ears to clean them. About 1 in 10 injured their ears, cutting the ear canal or perforating the eardrum. Even more dangerous is ear candling; putting a hollow candle into the ear that is burning at one end risks serious injuries such as hearing loss, ear canal burns and hair fires. Don’t do it.

If you are unlucky enough to have wax blocking your ear then check the diagnosis at your doctors. You will need eardrops to soften the wax. Studies show that both the water- and oil-based ones work – saline is less likely than oil to irritate the ear. If the wax won’t shift you may need irrigation or a trained person to remove it with an instrument. As for your ear buds, stick to the manufacturers’ suggested arts and crafts uses.