The dangers of cotton swabs: Thousands of kids sent to ER, study finds

You may have been told to use cotton swabs to clean your ears growing up, but doctors have long advised against the act.

In fact, new research published in "The Journal of Pediatrics" shows the applicators are actually causing injuries in children at a "surprising" rate.

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The team of scientists from Nationwide Children’s Hospital examined reports of cotton swab-related ear injuries at hospitals across the country, between 1990 and 2010, and found an estimated 263,000 patients under age 18 that were treated in the emergency room for ear-related complaints such as blockage, pain and bleeding.

The data from the 21-year period revealed a rate of more than 1,000 patients treated each month, or about 34 patients a day.

A huge chunk — 77 percent — of the reported injuries involved the use of cotton tip applicators and 73 percent of the injuries occurred during ear cleaning.

Kris Jatana, the study’s lead author and pediatric otolaryngologist at Nationwide Children’s Hospital, said this report, the first of its kind to address the national health issue, only scrapes the surface of how big the problem could be.

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“This study only captured injuries that were treated in emergency departments,” Jatana said in a news release. “There were likely a lot more injuries to children who were treated by an ear, nose and throat specialist or a pediatrician.”

Though 99 percent of the patients were treated and released, the authors wrote some of the injuries could have been dangerous. In fact, certain damage to the inner ear or eardrum could lead to facial nerve paralysis and permanent hearing loss among many other risks, they wrote.

For those wondering how exactly you’re supposed to clean your ears, the short answer is: you’re not.

“The ear is actually self-cleaning,” Jatana said. “Wax serves a function, to trap dirt and debris and bring it toward the outside of the ear.”

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If there’s visible wax near the outer part of your ear, Jatana advises using a small wet towel or baby wipe to clean it off. However, sticking a Q-tip into the ear canal is not just unnecessary and very dangerous.

According to, if you have heavy wax build-up, a doctor can treat it by painlessly injecting peroxide and water into the canal.

“I think some parents instill in their children that cleaning out the ear canal is similar to brushing their teeth,” Jatana said. “That misconception needs to be dispelled in order to help prevent these injuries from occurring.”

Read the full study.