Quite often, we see people using Q-tips, or 'cottonbuds' as we call them, to clean or remove wax from the ears. Although it is common practice, the reason for making such a fuss against it are the inherent health hazards associated with it.
Most of us are unaware that ears have their own cleaning system. By inserting Q-tips, clips, etc, inside the ear for prolonged periods, we are simply disrupting a natural system and even causing harm to the ear canal.
Ear wax is made from a combination of glandular secretions with dust and dead skin cells. The wax is semi-liquid and yellowish in colour, which turns dark-brown once it comes in contact with oxygen. That is the reason why once ear wax is poked with Q-tips, the removed wax comes out red or brown, which is commonly mistaken for blood!
There are small hairs in the outer part of our ear canal, which along with the wax, trap dust, dirt, bacteria and other particles entering the system. Thus, the wax also serves a protective function. The secretion is oily in nature and it also lubricates the skin of the canal. After some time, the wax dries and falls off; and gets expelled by regular movements of the jaws.
By irritating the skin with cotton buds, clips, etc. the top layer of skin is taken off, and skin cells can no longer regenerate. This also causes damage to hair follicles and ceruminous glands. So, the essential protective function of this part of the ear is lost.
Ear drums are located close to the ear canal. By blind insertion of Q-tips and such, there is almost a 50 percent chance of injuring the canal and the ear drum, which if ruptured, can take considerable time to heal. Another inherent danger is that one can never be sure whether these Q-tips are free from bacterial or fungal infection.
Depending on the nature of secretion, ear wax may be hard in some patients. In these cases, the wax may not come out by itself and over time, may accumulate in the ear. In some cases, ear canals may be curved or narrower than usual, which may also cause the wax to accumulate. Yet, even in such cases, the use of Q-tips is not advised; help should only be sought from medical professionals.
When people insert cottonbuds, clips, safety pins, etc. inside the ear, the wax is often pushed deeper. If done on a regular basis, the wax accumulates deep inside the canal. As there are no hairs in that part, jaw movement does not affect that area; the wax remains, becomes dry, hard, and impacted.
In such cases, patients often complain of fullness of ears, itching, earache, decreased hearing, tinnitus and dizziness. Sometimes the symptoms appear only after swimming or bathing, as water enters the ear and causes the wax to swell, putting pressure on the canal itself.
After analysing each case, a physician can opt to either remove wax using warm water syringing, or prescribe a wax softener. If a patient has hard wax, they can use olive oil regularly, as advised by the physician, which will help to keep it semi-liquid and clean.
Lastly, I am not suggesting to abandon the use of Q-tips once and for all! They have may be used to soak-off water if it goes deep into the canal. However, the ear should never be cleaned scratched with cotton buds and clips. It is simply a bad habit one should get rid of.