Q&A on Q-Tips: The good, the bad, the ugly


Q: Just what is wrong with Q-tips?  Everyone says you shouldn’t put anything smaller than your elbow in your ear. If you shouldn’t put cotton swabs in your ear, why do they sell them?  Why should I worry?

A: If a person cleans a normal ear canal with a cotton swab, their ear canal will itch, weep, and water will not bead up and fall out. If the ear itches, weeps, and water won’t fall out, a person will typically use a cotton swab. It’s a Catch-22.

The ear canal is a warm, dark, wet hole lined with skin. That skin sheds and dies.  Shed, dead skin in a warm, wet place is a perfect setting for bacterial and/or fungal overgrowth. Earwax is the protective barrier that keeps the canal healthy. Guess what?  Earwax is sterile. Bad stuff can’t grow on it. The body is truly amazing.

The ear canal actually cleans itself.  There is a natural migration of skin from the center of the eardrum to the medial skin of the canal and out of the ear.  Because shed, dead skin is a great culture medium, the ear canal mixes in excreted cerumen, earwax, to cause water to bead up and fall out of the canal.  Earwax is sterile and bacteriostatic, the latter meaning that bacteria can’t grow in it.  So, if you want to ruin the plan, cleaning your ear with a swab is great. Eventually, you’ll probably end up in my office.