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Here's why you shouldn't clean your ears with cotton buds

Wednesday 8th May 2019 - RTE , RTE View Article Here

Here's why you shouldn't clean your ears with cotton buds

It's a baffling thing, really, the urge many people have to dig around in their ears with cotton buds despite the countless years of warning about doing so. 

According to a YouGov survey of 1,730 in February, almost two-thirds of us root around in our ears with them, and we get through nearly two billion cotton buds a year.

If you're struggling to ditch the digging, one admittedly extreme but nonetheless horrifying story will set you right. 

When a young man, aged just 31 and otherwise healthy, started having seizures and violent headaches it was worrying enough. Then, he began forgetting peoples' names. And then he collapsed. 

Once at Coventry Hospital, it was discovered that he had two pus-filled abscesses on the lining of his brain. 

Doctors also found a piece of cotton bud buried deep inside his left ear. This fragment had caused necrotising otitis externa, a severe bacterial infection that begins in the ear canal and can reach the skull, where it eats through bone. 

Other symptoms include a facial droop much like that caused by a stroke, as facial nerves are damaged. This infection is usually seen in the elderly or people with compromised immune systems and while it is rare, it can be fatal.

The young man's case was documented in the journal BMJ Case Reports, which also noted that although he didn't know how long the bud could have been in his ear, he had experienced "intermittent left ear pain and hearing loss" for the past five years.

One removal under anaesthetic and eight weeks of intravenous antibiotics, and the patient made a full recovery - of the infection and of his cotton bud habit. 

This is an extreme example of the dangers of cleaning your ears with cotton buds, and other possible conditions include infections, impacted earwax, perforated eardrums and tinnitus.

Speaking to The Daily Mail, Dr. Roger Henderson, a GP from Dumfries says: "A lot of people seem to think earwax is dirty, but it is natural and important."

"I’ve seen patients put pencils and even hair clips down their ear canal to clean it. It just damages the lining, and can be dangerous."

Earwax is an essential part of our ear's health and plays a vital role in keeping our ears in good shape. Cerumen - the proper name for earwax - works like a filter for the delicate ear canal, trapping dirt and dust. Removing this leaves the ear vulnerable to pollution. 

It also helps keep water out of the ear and kills bacteria, thanks to its slightly acidic makeup. 

As we've been told many times before, using a cotton bud to shifting earwax usually pushes it further down the ear canal. Eventually, the wax becomes compacted, blocking the ear and dulling hearing. 

More aggressive use can also perforate the eardrum, leading to potentially permanent hearing loss. Due to the disruption of the earwax, infections are far more common. 

The best way to clean your ears, according to Vik Veer, a consultant surgeon at the Royal National Throat, Nose and Ear Hospital in London, is to leave them alone and allow nature to do the job for you. 

The ear lining pushes earwax out gradually, as it grows away from the inside of the ear to the outside. In this way, earwax falls out naturally, without the need of a cotton bud. 

What do you do if you've damaged your ear with cotton buds? 

If you routinely use cotton buds, it's likely you've knocked this natural process out of sync somewhat. 

Veer suggests using sodium bicarbonate drops, which are available in most chemists', to shift heavily compacted earwax. Alternatively, olive oil drops will soften the earwax and are best used before having earwax professionally removed. 

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