Using Cotton Swabs in Children’s Ears

Featured Expert:

You’ve probably heard the phrase “nothing smaller than your elbow in your ear.” Rachel Dawkins, M.D., medical director and director of clinical experiences for physicians in training at Johns Hopkins All Children's Hospital, explains findings from a study about the dangers of using cotton swabs in the ears.

What did this study show?

A study published in the journal Pediatrics looked at pediatric ER visits over 20 years. They found at least 35 emergency room visits a day for injuries related to use of cotton tipped swabs in the ears. Most of these injuries were in kids under 8 years old.

Why do some kids seem to have so much ear wax?

Ear wax is normal. It protects the ear canal by providing moisturization and blocking dirt, dust and germs that might get in---the same way nose hairs work in the nose. Some kids (and adults) just produce more wax than others. The ear is meant to be self-cleaning so most of the time the body will remove the wax itself.

Why is using a cotton swab in a child’s ear dangerous? What injuries have you seen from using these products?

The most common thing I see is that by using a cotton swab the wax is actually pushed further back in the ear canal. I also see injuries like bleeding ear canals and perforated ear drums from using swabs. We also see parts of the cotton swab left in the ear canal causing the sensation of a foreign body.

Kids learn to stick cotton swabs in their own ears causing injury. They also put things like bobby pins and pen caps in their ear to try to clean out wax, which is also dangerous.

How do I clean my child’s ears?

First I would say, don’t. If you feel the need to clean ears use the corner of a washcloth.

For kids having ear pain or loss of hearing from excess wax, talk to your pediatrician. We have specialized training, medicines and tools to remove ear wax.

General Pediatrics at Johns Hopkins All Children's Hospital

General Pediatrics
The Johns Hopkins All Children’s General Pediatric clinics in St. Petersburg and Sarasota, Florida, provide primary care services that focus on the treatment and prevention of common conditions for children from newborns to adolescents. We offer a wide range of outpatient services, including routine checkups, treatment of minor illnesses, immunizations and care for behavioral problems.

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