How Dangerous Are Q-tips?

People regularly use Q-tips to clean out their ears, despite the product’s packaging specifically warning against the practice. Now, a scary new study reveals why the little cotton swabs aren’t great for ears: They regularly send children to the ER.

According to the study, which was conducted by Nationwide Children’s Hospital and published in May 2017’s issue of The Journal of Pediatrics, an estimated 263,000 children younger than 18 years of age were treated in U.S. emergency rooms for cotton tip applicator-related ear injuries from 1990 through 2010 — that’s about 34 injuries a day.

Turns out, you shouldn’t be sticking cotton swabs in your ear. (Photo: Getty Images)

Researchers found that the majority of injuries — 73 percent — happened when people used cotton tip applicators to clean their ears. However, 10 percent were injured when they played with them and another nine percent fell while there was a cotton swab in their ear. More than 75 percent of the injuries happened when the child used the swab by themselves, but 16 percent occurred when parents were handling the swab to clean a child’s ear. Roughly two out of every three ER patients were younger than 8 years old, and 40 percent of all injuries happened with children 3 years old and younger.

According to the findings, the most common injuries were foreign body sensation (30 percent), i.e. sensitivity and pain from the swab, perforated ear drum (25 percent), and soft tissue injury (23 percent). Foreign body sensation was the most common diagnosis with 8- to 17-year-olds, while a perforated ear drum was the most common injury among children under 8 years old.

Luckily, nearly all of the patients seen in the ER for Q-tip-related injuries were treated and released. However, in about one percent of cases, children had damaged ear drums, hearing bones, or inner ears, which can cause dizziness, problems with balance, and irreversible hearing loss. “Despite warnings against the use of cotton-tip applicators in the ear canal and use of cotton-tip applicators by children, these injuries continued to occur,” the researchers wrote in the study.

As the study points out, people usually use Q-tips to clean out wax from their ears, but women’s health expert Jennifer Wider, MD, tells Yahoo Beauty that wax is actually there to protect the inner ear. “If the wax gets dislodged or pushed further into the eardrum, it can harm it and/or make it more vulnerable to infection,” she explains.

Daniel Ganjian, MD, a pediatrician at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, Calif., tells Yahoo Beauty that ear wax has natural antibiotic properties and consequently can help keep a person’s outer ear from getting infected. “It also prevents bugs from getting into your ears,” he points out.

The injuries children suffer from using a cotton swab aren’t comfortable — Wider notes that a perforated eardrum and soft tissue injury can cause pain in the ear, pus coming from the ear, ringing, vertigo, nausea, vomiting, or hearing loss. “A large percentage of cases heal on their own without intervention, but sometimes they require a procedure or surgery to fix,” she notes.

If you need to clean your ears or your child’s ears, Wider recommends using a warm, clean, damp washcloth. If you use cotton swabs, only use them on the outside of the ear — don’t insert them. Of course, wax can build up from time to time. If that happens, Wider recommends seeing your doctor. He or she can typically clean it out in the office.

And, since most injuries happened as a result of children cleaning their own ears, keep cotton swabs out of the reach of children. If you still use cotton swabs to clean your ears, Ganjian recommends doing it when your kids aren’t around. “Kids want to imitate parents,” he says. “Even if Q-tips aren’t available, they’ll be sticking pens in their ears.”

Bottom line: It’s really best to save the cotton swabs for non ear-related cleanings.

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