“WARNING: Do not insert swabs into ear canal.” It says it right there on the package, but that’s never stopped you before. Apparently it’s not stopping anyone: A new study published in The Journal of Pediatrics finds that emergency room physicians see an average of 34 kids per day with cotton-swab-related injuries. And those are just the kids.
Researchers at Ohio State University and Nationwide Children’s Hospital pulled 20 years of statistics from the National Electronic Injury Surveillance System, looking for kids landing in the emergency room with cotton-tip applicator (CTA)-related injuries.
They found oodles of them. Between 1990 and 2010, the database listed 263,338 children and teens treated for CTA issues in the emergency room. In 2010 alone, more than 12,000 kids went to the ER for CTA-related issues, a number that study co-author Kris Jatana calls “unacceptably high.” (Jatana also co-authored a 2013 study titled "The Internet, Adolescent Males, and Homemade Blowgun Darts: A Recipe for Foreign Body Aspiration." Pediatricians see some strange things.)
Kids under the age of 3 were the most common visitors, and most of the young patients had been handling the cotton swabs themselves when the injury occurred. The majority of them had been trying to clean their ears—or perhaps were imitating a parent who had done the same—although in some cases the children were said to have been playing with the swabs or had fallen down with one close to their ear canal. (We’re a mite skeptical of that last one.)
One of the most common issues was “foreign body sensation”: Kids felt like there was something stuck in their ears. What they were feeling was likely swelling and inflammation caused by, well, sticking something in their ears.
The second-most frequent injury was more gruesome: bleeding caused by a perforated eardrum. Yet nearly all of the injuries were relatively mild, and 99 percent of patients were successfully treated and released from the emergency room.
Unsurprisingly, previous studies have found that parents who use Q-tips to clean their kids’ ears are likely to use them on their own ears as well. “Common reasons cited for using CTAs were 'believing it was a good idea',” the authors write, “‘saw them advertised,’ and ‘saw others use them.'”
By now, you may have figured this out: It is not a good idea.
Fishing around in your ear canal with a Q-tip is the otic equivalent of douching or a juice cleanse: It sounds like a good idea, but you don’t need to do it, and it often does more harm than good. Our bodies are very good at caring for themselves. Our liver and kidneys help remove waste; our vaginas balance their own pH; and our ears clean themselves, all without our help. Leave them alone.