Many people regularly clean their ears with the best intentions of keeping them clean and healthy. However, ears are not designed for cleaning. In fact, they have their own hygienic regime in place, and by sticking objects into the ear, you are only disrupting this natural process. Or worse, causing an injury.
The American Academy of Otolaryngology – Head and Neck Surgery (AAO-HNSF), warns against the use of cotton-tipped applicators and the habit of probing into your ears. On their official website, they connect the over-zealous ear cleaning with the risk of hearing loss
Ear wax, medically known as cerumen, is a healthy feature of your ears and acts as a self-cleaning agent. It has protective, lubricating and anti-bacterial characteristics. It migrates from the ear drum to the ear opening, cleaning the ear canal, and then drying and falling out. This is a self-regulating process and in normal circumstances, there is no need to interfere. If there is an absence of ear wax, the ears become dry and itchy.
What happens when you use cotton swabs to clean your ears?
When you use cotton swabs, you are actually pushing the wax deeper into your ear, and into the area where it shouldn’t be. It can get stuck and blocked against the ear drum, which can cause all sorts of complications.
Fungus, bacteria and viruses from the outer ear get pushed into the ear and can cause infections, which are extremely painful. Second, if the wax is jammed deep inside the ear canal, it can cause hearing loss. If it gets shoved even further, it can damage the ear drum and result in a rupture.
Should the ears be cleaned at all?
Ideally, your ears should never be cleaned. By cleaning the inside of the ear you are only creating a vicious cycle. Dr. Douglas Backous, M.D., chair of the AAO-HNSF and director of hearing and skull base surgery at Swedish Neuroscience Institute in Seattle, explains that when you constantly rub the skin of your ears, a lot of histamine gets releases. This makes the skin irritated and inflamed. And the more you scratch, the more it itches.
The only time that ear wax should be cleaned is when you’ve been assessed by a doctor, who has noticed wax accumulation (cerumen impaction). The condition presents with symptoms such as earache, hearing loss, tinnitus, itching, odor and discharge. The ear should then be cleaned by a medical professional.
If you do want to continue cleaning your ears, do not insert anything into the inner ear! Clean only the external ear (which is also the recommendation of cotton swabs manufacturers), using a cloth.
You can also use gentle at-home irrigation if you really have to or just cannot leave your ears alone. Dr. Backous recommends a mixture of one part white vinegar, one part rubbing alcohol and one part tap water. Makes sure it’s at body temperature and use a few drops in each ear.
But the bottom line is that you shouldn’t be putting anything into your ear. Just let the body do its magic!