Did you know there was an arsenal in your bathroom drawer?

They say the pen is mightier than the sword, and when it comes to your ears, the truth is a pen is every bit as dangerous as something you may never have thought of – the cotton swab. It turns out a box of cotton-tipped swabs might be as bad for your hearing health as a sword.

It seems alarmist to worry about something so seemingly inconsequential as a cotton swab, but the truth is hundreds of people injure their ears every year using them.

The ear is a relatively self-cleaning system. Earwax is produced to protect the ear canal and help repel dirt and moisture. As more is produced, existing earwax travels further towards the exterior of the ear. By the time the earwax reaches the outer ear, it is dried and flaking, allowing it to brush away easily or be removed through external cleaning – like a regular shower or brushing the outer ear with a cloth. But hygiene practices, that incessant itch, or plain-old habit, drive most of us to reach for the cotton swabs after bathing.

That habit has cost many people their hearing. In the audiology world we have a saying – never stick anything in your ear bigger than your elbow. It’s like wearing a seatbelt, it’ll protect you from harm. The number of people who have used pens, hairpins, cotton swabs, toothpicks and any other number of instruments to try and clean out their ear canal is astounding, in fact, I’d bet you’re cringing right now thinking about how you scratched that itch in your left ear last week. So what can happen? Anything from a painful recovery to total hearing loss, dependent on the severity of the mishap.

The problems usually occur when the instrument used is sharper than expected and tearing or puncturing occurs inside the ear. In the case of a cotton swab, the most damaging ‘accidents’ are caused by loss-of-balance or being startled or generally sleepy inattention (and who among us isn’t, even after our morning shower?) It’s gross and extra-ordinarily painful, but cotton swabs can end up impaled so far into the ear that the resulting hearing loss and vertigo is permanent.

Much easier to just let nature do what it does, don’t you think? Rather than risk your precious hearing on a cotton swab?

If you do have recurring itching, or concerns about excessive earwax, talk to your physician or audiologist about strategies to alleviate your concerns, but don’t reach for that pen, or pocketknife, or hairpin or swab.

Tim Goshulak BC-HIS