Cotton buds (swabs), the fuzzy menace

cotton bud/swab with "no" sign

Keep it away from your ears!


I have a confession to make: I have been a cotton-poking scofflaw. For years, I’ve been using cotton buds/swabs in clear contravention of all warnings, whether from my parents or on the box. But all that has changed this week, after I found myself not once, but twice, needing the little cotton bit removed from my ear where it had slid off the stick.

After the first time, I thought it was just that I had cheap buds, and bought what I thought were better ones so I could continue my bad habit. When it happened again, and I wound up needing professional help again, I got an earful that has inspired me to spread the word.

The lovely fellow at the NHS walk-in clinic was surprisingly non-judgmental, given that I’d been there only days before with the same problem. He took the time to explain exactly why what I was doing was a Bad Idea, and I’m passing it on to you.

I’d known that putting the bud in my ear could theoretically puncture the eardrum if I were really unlucky and/or clumsy, but what I didn’t know was that just brushing the eardrum surface with it can lead to deafness. The eardrum is called that because it’s a very thin piece of tissue under tension, and easily damaged. Even brushing the surface can cause abrasions, so poking it is a definite no-no.

flash picture of normal eardrum, pinkish-grey

A normal eardrum

eardrum with blood spot from cotton swab injury

Cotton bud injury of eardrum

Many times I’ve thought the bud was just inside the canal and ended up poking the drum accidentally.


When the eardrum gets abraded, the blood has nowhere to go, so it stays there and distorts the shape of the membrane. Over time, with accumulated damage, the whole thing stiffens up and thus works less well at transmitting sound. Tinnitus can also result, along with dizziness and other common ear problems. It’s theoretically possible to deafen yourself with cotton buds!

Most people who are risking their hearing with cotton buds do so in the mistaken belief that this is a good way to clean earwax out of their ears. They’re wrong on at least two counts. First of all, the properly functioning ear is self-cleaning: there’s a constant turnover of cells from the middle of the eardrum up the ear canal and out into the world. In very dry conditions, this mechanism can fail, but it’s how our ears are designed to work. It may be a little less aesthetically pleasant, but I’ll take a little falling earwax over deafness any day. Second, cotton buds only push most of the earwax back toward the eardrum. Only the very top layer gets removed.

 According to the NHS:

In the majority of cases, earwax falls out on its own without the need to remove it. However, if earwax is totally blocking your ear, or if any of the following symptoms are present, it may need to be removed:

  • hearing loss,
  • earache,
  • tinnitus (noises in your ear that come from an internal source),
  • vertigo (the feeling that you are moving while you are still), or
  • a cough

Eardrops are the first thing to try (assuming you don’t already have a perforated eardrum!) – warm olive oil or glycerin seem to work well for many. Consult your doctor or other licensed medical practitioner for more details.

So be safe, and remember what they told us as kids: “Never stick anything smaller than your elbow in your ear.”

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