For decades, physicians have cautioned against using cotton swabs like Q-Tips to clean out the ears ("nothing smaller than an elbow" is a popular refrain). For one thing, they simply don’t do a very good job, often pushing the cerumen (ear wax) deeper into the ear. For another, the tiny tufts of cotton can sometimes break off and become lodged in the canal and damage the very delicate tissues inside. Q-Tips even have a box label warning: “Do not use inside ear canal.”
The medical field has now made it official: Stop sticking swabs in your ears. This month, the American Academy of Otolaryngology issued a revised set of ear wax care guidelines that specifically warns against the use of the swabs to try and unclog your head.
“The product label of one of the leading manufacturers of cotton-tipped swabs specifically notes that the product should not be placed into the ear canal,” the AAO wrote. "The cotton buds at the end of cotton-tipped applicators may separate, requiring removal as a foreign body. One case report did report fatal otogenic meningitis and brain abscess due to retained cotton swabs.”
That’s a bit extreme, as most of us are unlikely to die from probing our ears. Still, absolutely nothing good can come of using the swabs for wax removal. If build-up is bothering you, see a physician about having it removed the right way: with suction, or with tiny forceps wielded by a professional.