The Q-Tip: Hero Or Menace?

Jul 12, 2013
Originally published on July 12, 2013 3:45 pm

The Q-tip is a source of pleasure for many people — there’s just something about cleaning out your ears that feels so good.

Even though Q-tips look like they are designed to fit inside your ear, it turns out that is not the way to use them.

But, as Carey Goldberg, host of WBUR’s CommonHealth blog puts it, “how can something that feels so good be so wrong?”

Goldberg talked to medical experts who said misusing Q-tips can, “cause all kinds of problems: from punctured ear drums to impacted ear wax.”

Goldberg’s story “Why You Really, Truly Should Not Put Q-Tips Into Your Ears” back in November prompted such a massive response, she recently wrote a follow-up piece with more expert advice.

Even though it might seem intuitive to want to clean out your ears if they feel blocked up, Goldberg says the ear canal is designed to be self-cleaning.

Goldberg said the general rule for ear health is pretty simple: “If you leave your ears alone, they’ll leave you alone.”


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From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Jeremy Hobson. This is HERE AND NOW. And if you can't hear me that well, perhaps you need to clean out your ears with some Q-tips or cotton swabs. Well, actually, hold on, maybe that's a bad idea.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Stop using other ear cleaners that don't work and stop using cotton swabs that can damage your ears.


HOBSON: See what I mean? That's a commercial for the Wax Vac, and there may be some truth to it, even if Q-tips have never actually made you scream. Health reporter Carey Goldberg of our home station WBUR joins us with more. Welcome, Carey.

CAREY GOLDBERG, BYLINE: Thank you, Jeremy.

HOBSON: And you've been reporting on this for a while on the blog CommonHealth, a WBUR blog. It's one of the most popular stories you have ever done. So medically, first of all, should we or should we not use Q-tips?

GOLDBERG: Well, that's easy, Jeremy. I can distill it down to three little words, in terms of sticking them in your ear: don't do it.

HOBSON: Don't do it.

GOLDBERG: Don't do it. And, actually, that was the headline of a Q-tip post that I wrote back in November, which has become one of our most popular posts ever. The headline was" "Why You Really, Truly Should Not Put Q-tips Into Your Ears." And I began with my own little lesson, which was that I got impatient with the water in my ears after showering every morning, and I started to use Q-tips to get it out. And I find myself experiencing this sort of very odd, like, dislocating vertigo.

So I spoke with an ear expert, Dr. Jennifer Smullen at the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary, and she shared her warnings that even though Q-tips - they look exactly what they were designed to be stuck into your ear, right?

HOBSON: Yeah. They should go right in there.

GOLDBERG: What else would you use them for? But, actually, it can cause all sorts of problems, from punctured eardrums to impacted earwax. And doctors see these problems all the time, actually, despite all those warnings. And judging by the response to my post, which was this kind of widespread no don't...


GOLDBERG: ...deprive me of the ecstasy - it's ecstasy Q-tipping my ears. Apparently, a great many people are ignoring this medical advice at their own peril.

HOBSON: Well, and I have to count myself as one of those people.


HOBSON: But, you know, if there's wax in your ear, what are you're supposed to do? Shouldn't you clean it out?

GOLDBERG: Right. It would seem logical, right? But Dr. Smullen and others say that, in fact, earwax, in most cases, is actually good for your ears. It waterproofs them and it moisturizes them and it protects them. And I spoke with another Mass Eye and Ear expert, Dr. Steven Rauch, and he explained that the skin of the ear canal actually migrates outward, like a conveyor belt, and it pushes the wax out. So, by and large, ears are self-cleaning. And in some cases - because of the shape of the canal or the kind of consistency of the wax that you have - you might need someone to clean them. But mostly, the rule is if you leave ears alone, they'll leave you alone.

HOBSON: All right. But what if you feel like you know what you're doing? I mean, shouldn't you be cleaning your ears out if they feel stuffed up?

GOLDBERG: Well, actually, that's another very important emphatic message that these ear experts would like to spread to the public, which is, first of all, whatever the shape of the Q-tip is, don't use it sticking it in there. But the other really important medical tip, which I'd never heard before, is that if you do develop the feeling that one ear is blocked, like sort of the feeling of water in your ear...


GOLDBERG: ...when you get out of the shower, most of the time, it's harmless, and it goes away by itself in a few minutes or hours. But if you develop an acutely blocked ear and it does not clear that day, it should be checked, because it could be a kind of nerve damage called sudden deafness, which strikes quite a few people, one person in every 5,000 every year. And that's a bit of an emergency, because there's a short time window of just of a couple of weeks to treat it with steroids. And if you don't get it treated in that time window, the deafness can be permanent.

HOBSON: And how can you be certain that you have that?

GOLDBERG: Well, Dr. Rauch gave me this very simple test to perform. You hum.


GOLDBERG: You just hum.



GOLDBERG: Uh-huh. And if you hear your voice louder in the blocked ear, in the bad ear, then there's nothing to worry about. But if you hear your voice louder in the good, unblocked ear, that's bad. That's when you might have sudden deafness. And if you're not sure, he says, just have an ear, nose and throat specialist look at your ear.

HOBSON: All right. Carey Goldberg, co-host of WBUR's CommonHealth blog. Carey, thank you so much.

GOLDBERG: I hope it was helpful.

HOBSON: And we're back in a minute. HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.