Why Can't I Use an Ear Pick?
August 12, 2009 1:49 PM   Subscribe

Why shouldn't I use Q-tips? Or an ear pick?

I've read that doctors don't like you to stick anything in your ear "smaller than your elbow." Which is fine, except that the wax itches, and contributes to my loss of hearing.

When I go to an ear doctor, he scrapes out my ear with an ear pick. Why can't I do that, assuming I'm careful and don't push it in too far.

And why shouldn't I use a Q-tip, considering that Q-tips seem obviously made for pushing into your ear?
posted by musofire to Health & Fitness (26 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
You run the risk of pushing wax further into your ear and compacting it when you use a q-tip. Better to use a bulb syringe and wash out the wax, either with warm water or a mix of water and hydrogen peroxide to soften the wax.
posted by leslies at 1:51 PM on August 12, 2009

I will just relate what happened to my boyfriend about a month ago. He was having some hearing problems in one of his ears, everything sounded muffled. He went to the doctor who said he had impacted ear wax in his ear which was causing the problem. Apparently when you stick that Q-tip in your ear you are actually pushing ear wax deeper into your ear which can then clog the works up.
posted by trinkatot at 1:53 PM on August 12, 2009

My mom is a Q-tip addict (as am I) and here is what her doctor told her: "Yeah, it does push the wax into your ear, but so what? If it makes you feel better to use them, go ahead, and when it builds up too much, come in and I'll irrigate it for you." So she does and he does and everything's fine.
posted by HotToddy at 1:56 PM on August 12, 2009 [1 favorite]

It's a very common practice in Japan to use an ear pick on a regular basis, which grossed my boyfriend out to no end when I told him about it. When I was a kid, my mom used to gently scrape out my ear with a clean bobby pin. It never caused me any problems, but I was later told by an ENT specialist (I'd gone to see him for throat stuff, not ear stuff) that it probably wasn't a good idea to put things in my ears. That hasn't really stopped me from cleaning out my ears on a regular basis and still hasn't been a problem for me, but IANAD, and, as I mentioned before, a doctor did specifically tell me not to put things in my ears.
posted by Diagonalize at 2:03 PM on August 12, 2009

Also, impacted ear wax can cause fungal growth. Some people just have different levels of ear wax build up. The drops or saline wash can be annoying to use and not as satisfying as q-tips, but they will better guard against a fungus. You might have to just go to the ENT twice a year (or whatever) for suctioning/scraping but it is better than damaging your ear drum with an infection or perforation.
posted by mattbucher at 2:07 PM on August 12, 2009

My mother once burst her eardrum with a Q-tip—she was using it, stopped for a second to reach over for something (leaving the Q-tip in her ear), and accidentally knocked it through the eardrum. My father was in the basement, I was upstairs, and my sister was in the backyard (all places that are normally out of hearing range of my parents' bathroom), and she screamed so loud that all of us came running, thinking she was mortally wounded.
posted by ocherdraco at 2:07 PM on August 12, 2009

IANAD, but there are suggestions from WebMD, including:

Put a few drops of rubbing alcohol or rubbing alcohol mixed with an equal amount of white vinegar into the ear after swimming or showering. Wiggle the outside of the ear to let the liquid enter the ear canal, then tilt your head and let it drain out. You can also use nonprescription drops, such as Star-Otic or Swim-Ear, to keep the inside of your ear dry.

You can read even more from Rod Moser on q-tips and earcare.
posted by filthy light thief at 2:08 PM on August 12, 2009

The usual advice given by nervous-nellie US health professionals is NOT "one size fits all." My guess is people like your boyfriend have narrow ear canals -- hence, the impacting. Also, some people generate lots more ear wax than others, and different types -- Wikipedia's mimikaki page mentions ethnic differences:
The dry type of ear wax found in persons of Asian extraction is particularly amenable to this type of removal, more so than the wet type of ear wax found in people of Caucasian or African origin
but gives no cite so who knows -- whatever, I've been using both Q-tips (to swab out bathwater) and mimikaki (for the occasional itch) for decades, and during my routine physicals the doctor never says anything, after peering into my ear. And I've never had any ear infection (not even when young) nor hearing difficulties.
posted by Rash at 2:11 PM on August 12, 2009

Your doctor can actually see what he's doing with his ear pick.
posted by clearlydemon at 2:12 PM on August 12, 2009 [5 favorites]

Advice from my doctor was to use a dropper to put a few drops of warm olive oil into the ear, then plug loosely with cotton wool. This gradually softens the wax without doing any damage.

It's also possible to use hydrogen peroxide (diluted, I would imagine), which has a more aggressive effect on the wax.
posted by le morte de bea arthur at 2:18 PM on August 12, 2009

It's a very common practice in Japan to use an ear pick on a regular basis

It is one of the most important aspects of interpersonal bonding in Japan between a mother and her children, or between a wife and her husband. My wife cleans out our son's ears with a pick at least once a month, and my son loves it. He lays his head on her lap and acts all blissed out for the ten minutes it takes to clean the gunk out of his ears.

Funny thing is that these earpicks are usually stored at the head of the bed (or futon), and I've seen some earpicks stored with pens and so on in some houses in Japan.
posted by KokuRyu at 2:36 PM on August 12, 2009

Response by poster: But I still want to know what's wrong with using an ear pick. Unlike a Q-tip, it should not push wax into the ear, and short of suddenly shoving it in too hard, it shouldn't puncture the ear drum?
posted by musofire at 2:46 PM on August 12, 2009

musofire: one problem is that it scratches the thin tissue of your ear canal. Not enough to be painful or anything, but it can lead to a very unpleasant infection if you're not careful.
posted by spaceman_spiff at 2:53 PM on August 12, 2009

I think the problem with the ear pick is still the same, whenever you stick something into your ear canal you run the risk of puncturing your ear drum
posted by Think_Long at 2:54 PM on August 12, 2009

I think the problem is that many people do not, in fact, use them properly and do puncture the ear drum. There are also cleanliness issues, hence the reason it's not recommended by non-professionals. Plus, as KokuRyu described, in Japan, it's often done by another person, and it's considered a very intimate act. Unless you're reasonably used to cleaning out your own ears or someone else's ears, there's a chance for major hurtage and pain.
posted by Diagonalize at 2:58 PM on August 12, 2009

If a regular bulb doesn't work well enough, search Amazon for 'ear syringe.' They work wonders.
posted by l33tpolicywonk at 2:59 PM on August 12, 2009

Most Asian people have dry earwax, which comes out in flakes. Do ear-picks even work on wet earwax? I always thought if the doc was using a pick on a wet-type ear, they were scraping out deep deposits that had dried. I don't know if I'd wanna go that deep if I couldn't see what I was doing.
posted by pseudostrabismus at 3:03 PM on August 12, 2009

Wow, wasn't really aware that earwax came in different consistencies (I'm Asian), but what KokuRyu described is pretty much what my mother would periodically do to me and my siblings back when we were young: Use a flashlight to peer around inside and use the ear "pooper scooper" to scrape out what she could see. It really does feel great, and I'm not sure how ear wax can get pushed further in if you're scraping the side or only going after what is visible.

On a side note, my boyfriend and I have tried ear candles a couple times but it just isn't the same.
posted by Seboshin at 3:26 PM on August 12, 2009

Personal anecdote on ears: my grandma, back in her teens (which would be the 1930s), was having trouble hearing in an ear, and the doctor cleaned them out and told her dad to flush them out with hydrogen peroxide if it happens again or gets worse. Doctor didn't explain what dilution was OK, and whatever great-grandpa used on her scorched the eardrum such that she's been deaf in that ear since young-adulthood. She, um, didn't let him do it to the other ear, as you might have guessed.

Personally, I stick q-tips in my ear canals and clean out the wax, using care not to dig too deep. I also use separate q-tips for the ear itself and going in the canal, to avoid taking dirt from the exterior and wiping it all over a now wax-less interior.
posted by AzraelBrown at 3:35 PM on August 12, 2009

I have been sticking stuff in my ears for my whole life (43 now). Q-tips, ear picks, bobby pins, straight pins (sharp side *out* of course). I also occasionally pour hydrogen peroxide (2%) in there and let it bubble for awhile. Just be careful and sensible about it.
posted by jockc at 4:28 PM on August 12, 2009 [1 favorite]

I was told by a doctor one time that using qtips can cause callouses to form in there.

but i'm not sure how accurate that is. how often would you have to use them for that to happen?
posted by ArgentCorvid at 5:48 PM on August 12, 2009

I've been sticking stuff in my ears my whole life, too. It feels wonnderful.

But I don't think my hearing is as good as it used to be.
posted by Comrade_robot at 6:53 PM on August 12, 2009

Penn Jillette has a memorable essay about how his Q-tip use led to not only damaged eardrum, but to him needing surgery under general anesthetic. Truly horrible. It seems to have been pulled offline; here's a quote from it:
I had a hole in my eardrum that my body tried to fix. My body, being as smart as me, decided the best way to fix it was to grow wild skin all over the inside of my head. It covered the "bones of hearing" (a good name for a band), and was working its way to my brain. My East Coast ear guy (I have an ear guy on each coast), said, "These cysts are always benign -- but if you leave them alone, they'll keep growing, make you deaf, destroy your balance, paralyze all the muscles in at least one side of your face, and eventually, they can kill you."
This thread on q-tips might also be useful.
posted by LobsterMitten at 11:46 PM on August 12, 2009

Wayback machine link for Penn Jillette article on the dangers of poking in your ears

Another quote from the same article:
When you walk into an ear specialist, the first question is, "Do you use Q-Tips?" And if you 'fess up, it's like you just coughed out "Pall Mall" to you r pulmonary specialist. He figured I had taken all the protective wax out of my ear and given myself constant nano-nicks with the devil's little cotton pitchfork. As I got deeper into middle age, the tiny infections ate a little hole in my eardrum.
posted by LobsterMitten at 11:54 PM on August 12, 2009

Mom taught me to use a Q-Tip when I was a child. I've been doing it ever since.
The doctors and nurses nave always said not to do that.
As a side note: An audiologist told me that coughing was a normal reflex of having something shoved in your ear.
posted by Drasher at 6:53 AM on August 13, 2009

In New Delhi, the ear cleaners are known by their red caps and have been cleaning ears for generations. While not like the familial examples cited above from Japan, ear cleaning is definitely part of Indian culture. All my relatives (including me) are pretty into it.

I was an ear cleaner for Halloween once, but no one I met wanted to run with it...
posted by sub-culture at 1:50 PM on August 13, 2009

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