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Close-up shot of cotton swabs.

Using Cotton Swabs to Clean Your Child’s Ears May Land You in the E.R.

December 23, 2020

By Ghazala Abuazza, M.D., F.A.A.P.

Using cotton swabs to clean ears may very well be your ticket to the emergency room.

Research shows that cotton-swab-induced mishaps are a major cause of ER visits among U.S. adults and children in need of treatment for bleeding ear canals and punctured eardrums.

As reported in the Journal of Pediatrics, cotton swab injuries to children’s ears most often occur when children use the cotton tip applicator by themselves, followed by injuries when a parent or sibling used it clean a child’s ears. The highest rate of visits to the ER for ear injuries is among children 3 and younger.

Besides cleaning injuries, children wind up in the ER as a result of injuries from playing with cotton swabs or from falling while a swab is in their ear.

Baby Getting a Check Up

Risk of irreversible hearing loss

I know product warnings are easy to overlook, but many cotton swab boxes warn right on the box not to use them in the ear canal. There’s a good reason for this. For instance, it’s not easy to know how deep you’re putting the swab. The slightest wrong movement can puncture the ear drum. This can lead to permanent hearing loss, dizziness, balance problems, and facial nerve paralysis.

Intensifying ear problems

Aside from injury, cotton swabs aren’t an effective means of cleaning ears. What they do is push ear wax further into the ear canal, which can result in a buildup of wax. If a child develops an ear infection, this buildup of wax you’ve inadvertently caused will hide the eardrum, meaning the pediatrician has to remove it to treat the infection, causing more discomfort for a child already in pain – and for you.

Leave ear wax alone!

Kid Using a Cotton Swab

The only reason to clean the ears is when ear wax is visible. And then just use a wash cloth with warm water to wipe it away. If ear wax isn’t causing problems or blocking the ear canal, then leave it alone! Earwax actually protects the ear, and over-cleaning can irritate the ear canal and cause infection. If you suspect your child has a buildup of wax, please leave it to their pediatrician to remove it. You might save yourself a trip to the ER.

Limit your cotton swab use to cleaning between your computer keys, gluing arts and craft projects, or applying ointment on your little one’s scraped knee.

Portrait of Ghazala Abuazza, MD, FAAP, Pediatrics specialist at Kelsey-Seybold Clinic.

About the Author

Dr. Abuazza is a board-certified pediatrician at Kelsey-Seybold’s Cypress Clinic. Her clinical interests include breastfeeding, healthy eating, immunizations, allergies, asthma, eczema and skin rashes, enuresis, urinary tract infections, dysfunctional voiding syndrome, and other kidney diseases. She has fellowship training in Pediatric Nephrology (kidney disease in kids).
Dr. Adesina from Kelsey-Seybold Clinic

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