Using a Q-Tip To Clean His Ears Almost Cost One Man His Life. Don’t Make the Same Mistake!

Proactive Health


By Joy Stephenson-Laws, JD, Founder


We’ve all done it. We have cleaned our ears with a Q-tip (also called a cotton swab) and marveled at the gunk (earwax) we extracted from our ear canals.

But before you keep performing this seemingly safe and hygienic practice, the following story will surely make you rethink the way you clean your precious ears.

It’s probably not every day that doctors surgically remove cotton swab tips from someone’s ear canal - especially one that has been in the ear canal for years!

But this appears to have happened in the case of a 31-year-old man in England who developed a bad bacterial infection that started in the ear canal and then “progressed into the bone at the base of his skull,” according to a report.

The tip of a cotton swab got caught inside his ear canal, however, he wasn’t really aware of this until the doctors that treated him discovered it was there during surgery. He told doctors that he wasn’t really exactly sure how the cotton swab tip got stuck or when it even happened.

He experienced the following symptoms before the cotton swab was surgically removed:  

  • Pain and discharge from his left ear
  • Headaches on the left side of his head that were so bad they caused vomiting
  • Trouble remembering people’s names
  • Seizures

The man told doctors that he had been experiencing left ear pain and hearing loss over the past five years. He also said that he had been treated twice for severe ear infections on his left side.

So the doctors decided to have him do a CT scan, which allows examination of the brain through images. Doctors noticed abscesses in the bones at the base of his skull next to his left ear canal.

The infection reached the lining of his brain, however, luckily the infection did not actually enter his brain.

After discovering the abscesses, doctors performed a “minor surgery” so that they could thoroughly explore the man’s ear canal. It was at that time that they found and removed the cotton swab tip which “was impacted and surrounded by wax and debris, suggesting that it had been there for some time,” according to one of the lead doctors that treated him.

The doctor also said that this was the likely culprit responsible for all the ear infections and issues the man was having over the years.

Foreign objects like the tip of the swab found in his body are able to increase the bacteria population and cause infections.

Fortunately, he received the proper care and recovered after receiving two months of intravenous and oral antibiotics. He also had no long-term hearing or thinking problems. The man was also advised by medical professionals to never again clean his ears with cotton swabs.

So should we not clean our ears with cotton swabs?

Well, the reason we clean our ears is to remove earwax. And most of us have concluded that removal of all the earwax from our ears promotes ear cleanliness. But earwax, (as gross as it may seem), is actually something we all need.

“Earwax, a bodily emanation that many of us would rather do without, is actually pretty useful stuff — in small amounts. It's a natural cleanser as it moves from inside the ear canal outward, gathering dead skin cells, hair, and dirt along the way. Tests have shown that it has antibacterial and antifungal properties. If your ears don't have enough earwax, they're likely to feel itchy and uncomfortable,” according to Harvard Health.

If you attempt to remove earwax with a cotton swab or Q-tip, it may cause ear infections, punctured eardrums and impacted earwax. And as we now know, getting any of the foreign materials of a cotton swab caught in your ear canal can be very dangerous.

So how should we clean our ears?

“Your ears usually do a good job cleaning themselves and don’t need any extra care,” according to one  source.

“The only reason you should clean them is to soften or remove earwax from the outside of your ear canals. And if you’re going to do that, you’ll need to know how to do it carefully.”

If you feel like you have too much earwax buildup, stick to only cleaning the outside part of the ear canal and use a washcloth.

You can also use over-the-counter ear drops that may soften and break up earwax.

“The water-based ones contain ingredients such as acetic acid, hydrogen peroxide, or sodium bicarbonate. Oil-based products lubricate and soften the earwax. Studies haven't shown one type to be better than the other. Sometimes the eardrops will work on their own. Other times, a few squirts of water with a bulb syringe are needed. No one with a damaged eardrum should use a bulb syringe. If water gets into the middle ear, a serious infection is possible,” reports Harvard Health.

Some people swear by ear candling, which essentially inserts a lit candle into one’s ear, but the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and other credible sources say this is not a safe practice and may not even be effective.

Although some earwax is beneficial to the health of our ears, having excessive amounts can cause problems.

If your ear canal gets plugged up with earwax, this can cause earaches, infections and blockages that can cause hearing problems. In situations where excessive earwax is a problem, it is probably best to seek the attention of a competent healthcare professional who can remove unneeded earwax with the proper tools -- not a Q-tip!

What does earwax have to do with nutrition?

As funny as this may sound, there is a connection between earwax and nutrition. Earwax is acidic, which probably explains why it has some antibacterial properties.

“Researchers have found that the earwax of people with diabetes is less acidic than that of people without the disease, a difference that may help explain why some people with the disease are prone to ear infections,” says Harvard.

And if you look at this from the perspective that having a poor diet may cause excessive weight gain and diabetes which in turn causes you to produce less acidic earwax, which can lead to more ear infections, then there is a connection between what you eat and earwax.

So embrace the fact that your ears are self-cleaning. Know that having some earwax is beneficial and eat healthily in order to prevent certain health issues that may make your earwax less acidic and cause infections.

And finally, you might want to lay off the Q-Tips!


Enjoy your healthy life!


The pH professional health care team includes recognized experts from a variety of health care and related disciplines, including physicians, attorneys, nutritionists, nurses and certified fitness instructors. This team also includes the members of the pH Medical Advisory Board, which constantly monitors all pH programs, products and services. To learn more about the pH Medical Advisory Board, click here.


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