Using cotton swabs may rupture eardrums

CHICAGO–Hearing professionals have long been cautioning their patients not to use Q-tips or other small items  to clean their ear canals. Now a study by Henry Ford Hospital shows that their advice was well-founded. 

The study, which was presented April 29 at the Combined Otolaryngology Spring Meeting in Chicago, found a direct association between the use of cotton swabs and ruptured eardrums. The study co-authors, Ilaaf Darrat, MD, and Michael Seidman, MD, FACS, who are both  otolaryngologists at Henry Ford Hospital, found that in most cases the rupture heals on its own.

Darrat said, “Many otolaryngologists have wondered if surgery is really necessary to treat a ruptured eardrum. The results of this study show that 97% of cases healed on their own within 2 months.”

According to the Henry Ford Health System, more than half of patients seen in otolaryngology clinics, regardless of their primary complaint, report using cotton swabs to clean their ears. If the swab is pushed too far into the canal, it can cause serious damage, including ruptured eardrum, also known as tympanic membrane perforations (TMP). Severe TMP can cause facial paralysis and vertigo.

Seidman, who is director of otologic surgery at Henry Ford Hospital, recommends, instead of cotton swabs, using these alternatives to clean the inner ear.

• Take cool peroxide and hot tap water and mix equally so the liquid is room temperature. Gently irrigate the ear once or twice a month.

• Take plain vinegar and water and use four or five drops in the ear weekly.

• See a doctor, who can remove ear wax for you.

• Try an over-the-counter treatment such as Debrox.