Using a cotton swab could be dangerous as it could lead to ear damage like hearing loss, damaged ear canal or damaged ear drums.
Paramedics who arrived to help a young man who had collapsed one afternoon were totally mystified.
Only 31 years old, he had, without any warning, started having seizures and violent headaches. He was also forgetting people’s names — and then he passed out.
After being taken to hospital, he was quickly sent for a brain scan which solved the riddle: two pus-filled abscesses on the lining of his brain.
The cause? A piece of cotton bud found buried deep inside his left ear.
The bud had led to necrotising otitis externa, a bacterial infection that starts in the ear canal before spreading to the skull, where it eats through the bone.
Facial nerves can also be affected, causing a stroke-like droop. Also known as malignant otitis externa, it is usually seen in the elderly, and others with a compromised immune system. While rare, it can be fatal.
The unnamed man, whose case was detailed in the journal BMJ Case Reports in March, did not know how long the cotton bud tip had been there. But he told his doctors he’d suffered ‘intermittent left ear pain and hearing loss’ for the past five years.
The cotton tip had to be removed under anaesthetic. The patient made a full recovery — but only after eight weeks of intravenous antibiotics. ‘Most importantly,’ wrote his doctors, ‘he is no longer using cotton buds’.
It’s an extreme example, but cotton buds can cause a range of problems, including infections, impacted earwax, perforated ear drums and tinnitus
So, how should you clean your ears? The short answer is, don’t.
‘That’s how cavemen cleaned their ears — they just left them,’ says Mr Veer.
The skin lining the ear is constantly growing outwards from the ear drum and earwax is transported along it. When it reaches the outer ear, it falls out naturally.
As we age, wax becomes harder and drier, which can hinder its natural movement out of the ear.
Signs of wax build-up include hearing loss, a feeling of fullness in the ear and a ringing or crackling sound.
If you think wax is blocking your ears, the NHS recommends seeking a pharmacist’s advice, followed by seeing a practice nurse who can perform microsuction, in which a miniature vacuum sucks out the wax.
Dr Henderson, a spokesman for Earex ear drops, says that home syringing should be avoided. ‘If used incorrectly, there’s a risk you could perforate the ear drum.’
And ‘ear candling’, in which a lit, hollow candle is inserted into the ear in the belief it draws out the wax, ‘is a really bad idea’, says Mr Veer. Apart from the danger of burns, studies show it can deposit candle wax in the ear.
‘Please don’t use candles for earwax,’ says Mr Veer. ‘Use them for romance and power cuts.’