Listen to this—if you can: In a new study from Wayne State University, researchers found that “aural foreign bodies”—a.k.a. objects stuck in ears—send an average of 56,189 people to emergency rooms every year.
In adults younger than 65, about half the injuries came from cotton swabs, which can perforate your eardrum when pushed in too far. The irony is that swabbing your ears is pointless. “Ears are self-cleaning systems,” says study author Adam Folbe, M.D. Your ear canal pushes wax outward continually, like a conveyor belt, he says.
What’s more, wax is healthy: “Your earwax is made in the outer part of your ear, and it’s acidic, so it acts as a moisturizer for the ear canal skin and helps to keep bacteria and fungus from growing,” says Dr. Folbe.
Excess wax buildup is uncommon, and if it strikes—usually due to age or genetics—you’ll need the help of an otolaryngologist, not a cotton swab.
Consider these scenarios as motivation to quit Q-tips. “The most common problem with cotton swabs causing injury is actually when people leave them in their ear and walk around and forget that they have them in,” says Hamid Djalilian, M.D., an associate professor of otolaryngology at the University of California-Irvine. What happens next? A guy goes to comb his hair or do something else with his arms, and he bumps the swab, pushing it in too far. Ouch!
Children have also been known to bump the arms of swabbing adults, and people who swab near doors can be injured when someone walks in and collides with them. If the swab goes in deep enough, it can fracture the tiny bones behind your eardrums that carry sound to your inner ear.
In the study, the following items also caused plenty of pain:
If you wear earrings, make sure the backs are on securely and consider taking them out when you sleep. If an earring back—or anything else—lands in your ear, don’t try to fish it out yourself. “You’ll push it in further and that can cause infection or perforation of your eardrum,” he says. Doctors have forceps for these situations.
Some people use tissues to clean their ears, says Dr. Folbe. Skip them: You’re inviting injury and infection, he says.
When worn correctly, earplugs can protect you from hearing loss. It’s a different story if a piece breaks off and lodges in your ear. Be careful with moldable plugs, which are designed to form to your outer ear, says Dr. Folbe. Don’t put them in your ear canal. “It actually warms up with your body temperature, and then when you pull it out it’s soft, and you pull out the outer part of it, but the inner part stays in,” says Dr. Folbe. What’s more, these plugs are usually designed for one-time use, so re-using them increases the risk of breakage, says Dr. Djalilian. Earplugs made of plastic or foam are less likely to cause this problem; however, if you see cracks or signs of wear and tear, buy new ones.
Many earphones have a plastic or rubber lip to help them stay put. These could break off while you’re listening, says Dr. Folbe, so if you see cracks, glue wearing off, or other signs of damage, consider buying a new pair. Even if they’re in mint condition, wearing earbuds during long workouts can push sweat and wax deep into your ear canal, increasing your infection risk. If you notice pain when you pull on your earlobe, see a doctor.
Hearing Aid Components
This is a medical emergency. “If you get a battery stuck in your ear canal, you need to go right to the ER because the battery has acid in it, and it can it burn the ear canal skin,” says Dr. Folbe.