Q-tips, help me quit you
December 2, 2014 3:43 PM   Subscribe

I'm addicted to q-tips, have been for some time, and think it's beginning to cause some issues. Please help me quit using q-tips (it isn't that easy!).

I get an itch or tingle in my ear, and feel the need to use a q-tip (or occasionally a bobby pin) to scratch that itch--giving a moment of incredible relief and good feelings ("eargasm" is a term some people have used). I absolutely know you're not supposed to put anything in your ear, but the itch is often very intense and distracting, and extremely difficult to ignore.

I'm at a point where it's disruptive. I'll wake up in the middle of the night with an itch, and need to use a q-tip. Occasionally, I get, um, "seepage" of clear fluid at night (which I presume is an ear infection). Occasional light ringing. It's not good, but I'm really, truly addicted to q-tips.

I'd like to stop, because I know this isn't good for me, but don't know how. Help me quit swabbing, please?
posted by anonymous to Health & Fitness (33 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
First step is to see an ENT to rule out a physical/medical issue. When you're there, ask about Clinere ear cleaning tools.
posted by PorcineWithMe at 3:46 PM on December 2, 2014 [11 favorites]

Go to a doctor. Your ears should not itch and any fluid is not normal. Let him/her convince you as well.
posted by AlexiaSky at 3:47 PM on December 2, 2014 [6 favorites]

It could well be eczema. Quite common in the ear, and it'll often produce a clear fluid. But best to get it checked.
posted by pipeski at 3:51 PM on December 2, 2014 [3 favorites]

Yeah, you should get this checked out, but the scratching you're doing is just perpetuating the itch, and the itch may go away once you stop scratching and the skin in your ear canal heals up. IANAD but the fluid could be because the canal is producing too much gunk in an attempt to rid itself of the irritation you're causing. You can irrigate your ear to get any excess wax out (I discuss this in my answer to another question).

How is the humidity in your bedroom? Dry, cold air will exacerbate any itch. Also, make sure you're drinking enough fluids. If it's cold where you are, wear a hat or ear muffs when you're outside.
posted by desjardins at 3:57 PM on December 2, 2014 [2 favorites]

I feel you, my friend. Doctor first, definitely, for the clear fluid. They also might professionally flush you out which might be very gross and also might fix that light ringing.

See about getting a humidifier for your bedroom, and take steamy showers. Drink tons of liquids (I'm terrible at this.) Try to keep your sinuses and related systems in good working order. Talk to your doctor about how best to do that for your particular body.

It's going to take persistence more than anything, but you might have some luck with swapping this behavior for another self-soothing one. I have tried: at-home manicures including cleaning, cuticle maintenance, filing, buffing, painting nails; applying lotion to dry skin spots and all over (definitely the most successful); easy yoga and stretch routines to do in the middle of the night; just twisting up and destroying the q-tip instead of actually putting it in my ear, sometimes chewing on it lightly; tweezing unwanted facial hair; and more! I've thought about looking into puzzle rings and other worry jewelry options. I also crochet, which is a great thing to do with my hands and a good incentive because I really don't want to get ear wax on my yarn.

Unfortunately you just have to stop sticking anything smaller than your pinky in and around your ears. Eventually the irritated skin will heal and the wax buildup will rebalance and start to do its job again. But it's a battle of wills.

Your doctor might send you to a specialist of one kind or another. You might visit a dermatologist if there's skin irritation, an ear nose & throat doctor if it's an internal issue, a therapist to help build a plan to stop picking. There are various ear cleaning tools but first you're going to have to allow your ears to heal.
posted by Mizu at 3:59 PM on December 2, 2014 [5 favorites]

You don't need to start with an ENT - go to your primary care doctor and let them look in your ears. You might just have dry skin in there or something (on preview, what pipeski said). The clear fluid is not likely to be an ear infection and is not normal (infection causes pus-like/cloudy fluid and is painful). Get it looked at.

In the meantime, you could try using ear drops or irrigation to relieve the irritating sensation. They sell earwax softening drops over the counter. I personally get clogged ears a lot and have unfortunately found the Clinere products to be unhelpful. As an ER doc I would prefer patients using them to Q tips, because quite aside from the potential to damage the inside of your ear, the tip of the Q tip can come off inside the ear and is very difficult to get out when it does - but ideally, no, you need to not put anything in your ears whatsoever. And please, for the love of your eardrum, no bobby pins!! You're asking for major trouble.
posted by treehorn+bunny at 4:04 PM on December 2, 2014 [3 favorites]

Watch Girls, season two, episode nine.

I can't even look directly at Q-tips anymore.
posted by prize bull octorok at 4:05 PM on December 2, 2014 [9 favorites]

OMG, I love a good ear scratch too. Just reading this made me want a Q-Tip... What I have done when I need to break the scratching habit, for example to let a cut from too vigorous scratching heal, I put a couple drops of really hot water in my ear and let it work in (oil is good for this too) then I use the corner of a very thin washcloth to get right in to the edge of the ear when it's tilted downwards. The water stops the itch and sometimes removes wax that was causing the itch in the first place.

Also, I would likely get clear fluid checked out.
posted by saradarlin at 4:06 PM on December 2, 2014

I do this (Q-Tips and bobby pins) and it never occurred to me that it was a problem. For the record, I'm 43 and I've been doing it since I was a teenager and first started wearing ear plugs to sleep and study and the edges of the ear plugs are slightly scratchy. When it seems like I've gotten too enthusiastic, I'll swab some Neosporin in. I don't ever go so far in that it hurts.

My MDs check my ears every check up and no one's said anything beyond "those are some CLEAN ears!"
posted by small_ruminant at 4:15 PM on December 2, 2014 [2 favorites]

I get this itch too, and was told it could have something to do with my allergies/asthma combo. So definitely worth looking into.

I got a lot better about not scraping out my ear with implements, when I went to the campus health center in college. The doctor looked in my ears and said, "What have you been doing to your ears?! They're all scratched up inside! Stop whatever it is you're doing before you cause real damage!" He had a big enough cow, that he cured me of most of the ear picking.
posted by Coatlicue at 4:29 PM on December 2, 2014

Treehorn + bunny, I'll defer to you, but isn't clear fluid drainage from the ear (with or without bloody hues) usually indicative of a rupturing eardrum?
posted by discopolo at 4:33 PM on December 2, 2014 [1 favorite]

I realize that there are better practical tips above that you should *definitely* use, but let me tell you my own cautionary, real-life tale.

I, too, used to obsessively clean my ears with q-tips. Three times a day. It felt good; and I felt unclean if I went more than 12 hours without doing it. Needless to say, my ears were wax-free.

About a year later, I develop a sinus infection that eventually leads not only to laryngitis, but to a raging, aching, highly painful eardrum infection.

I made the mistake of seeing an urgent care doctor who gave me only liquid, antibiotic eardrops as opposed to that + a pill antibiotic. (I don't love antibiotics, but hear me out). The ear antibiotic drops were not sufficient and did not hold back the infection even though I used them properly per the doctor and bottle's instructions, until the entire course of eardrops was finished. The eardrum infection came raging back, but worse. The entire right side of my face was swollen and painful to the touch, and the earache itself was relentless to the point that I bailed on visiting my family for Easter that year. I couldn't sleep. I had no appetite.

By the time I got in with my beloved primary care doctor after the holiday, she took loving pity on me and gave me an oral antibiotic. It was while I was picking up the prescription, standing in the pharmacy, that my eardrum officially ruptured and (TMI ALERT!) highlighter-yellow liquid pus came dripping out of my right ear and down my neck. IN PUBLIC.

It was a huge ohysical relief, but I lost hearing in my right ear for about a month or two. And that was my good ear. (I don't hear as well with my left ear).

This also resulted in a permanent perforation in my right ear drum. It isn't a huge deal - I had an ENT look at it with a microscope and he could barely see it - but it's significant enough that whenever I blow my nose, I can hear a high pitched "whiiiiizzzzzzzzzzzz" sound through my right ear. That's the sound of the air passing through the perforation. Mildly annoying.

The lesson? Ear wax is NECESSARY. It exists for a reason. You need a reasonable amount of it in order to protect your ear from dirt, debris, insects (ick) and certain bacteria. It protects the ear, as well as the brain.

Also: earwax prevents itching. So the more you clean out, the more you're going to have that relentless itching.

Again, I only share this so that you have an image of what this kind of habit can lead to. I clean my ears out maybe once a week now. Usually only twice a month.

My practical suggestion would be to give away all of your unused q-tips. And when you get the urge to use them, brush your teeth instead, or floss, gargle with mouthwash, file your nails, any other kind of "grooming" you can do to distract you from q-tips.

Good luck!
posted by nightrecordings at 5:06 PM on December 2, 2014 [27 favorites]

I might put a Q-tip in my ear after a shower, very gently, but more often than not, I do what my mother did: put my pinky in my ear and shake it back and forth. My pinky cannot get inside my ear or harm it, and the external shaking "scratches" the itch. I call it the pinky ear wobble. You can also use a tissue, rolled to a point, to gently dab any liquid (a Nurse Practitioner told me this, she was highly against Q-tips). Of course, wash your hands after this.
posted by Marie Mon Dieu at 5:22 PM on December 2, 2014 [2 favorites]

I too have a secret love for Q-tips, but reading this might help you keep things out of your ears.
posted by H21 at 5:48 PM on December 2, 2014

I use hydrocortisone + antibiotic eardrops, which work wonders.
posted by dmd at 6:18 PM on December 2, 2014

Go see a specialist (ENT doc).
posted by jeffamaphone at 6:23 PM on December 2, 2014

isn't clear fluid drainage from the ear (with or without bloody hues) usually indicative of a rupturing eardrum?

I had ear infections for a few solid years when I was a kid before I got tubes put in and generally speaking you will know if you have an ear infection like that because it hurts like the bejesus. Like "can't sleep head is falling off" level pain until the eardrum ruptures. You could have an "outer ear infection" which is when there is water stuck in the ear that becomes a breeding ground for bacteria. Bacteria could also (possibly) grow in little scratches in the ear canal that are created by bobby pins as well (because of the weird way inner ear skin lies over the bones). Clear fluid is likely to be previously trapped fluid from showering or swimming though I would defer to treehorn+bunny but that's been my ear experience.

I learned to wiggle my ears when I was having a particular bout of swimmer's ear and that's actually been pretty good for the occasional hands-free scratching situation. Might help?
posted by jessamyn at 6:46 PM on December 2, 2014

I kicked my q-tip habit with a couple of techniques:

1. Run out of q-tips. Don't buy more.
2. The itching goes away after a couple of days. It can be alleviated with a little vaseline if you get desperate.
3. If you get really desperate you can fold a piece of toilet paper into a little cone and use that to sweep just the outer edges of your ear canal -- you can't shove it in there as far as a q-tip but it'll help.

I can't really comment on the infection aspect of things, and you should see a doctor about that.
posted by jacquilynne at 7:00 PM on December 2, 2014

you will know if you have an ear infection like that because it hurts like the bejesus

OH GOD YES. Like the bejesus. I've had epididymitis; I've had an inner ear infection. Given the choice I'd pick the ouchyballs every time.

nightrecording's comment had me cringing in my seat. Oh for the love of God.

Mizu's advice (and also echoed by nightrecording) to try to refocus the urge to a more healthy self-care activity is really interesting. I have a nasty nervous cuticle-picking habit -- which I've incidentally learned from other previous AskMes is probably called dermatillomania -- so that's some advice I'll try out too. But oh it's hard to break these learned habits.
posted by We had a deal, Kyle at 7:08 PM on December 2, 2014

Behold the Ototek Ear Loop, an invention that ranks right up there with fire, the wheel, and agriculture as far as I'm concerned. It's shaped so as to pull wax out rather than push it farther in, and the little pommel on the handle prevents it from being inserted too far. These have completely replaced Q-tips in my waxy world.
posted by bac at 9:29 PM on December 2, 2014 [4 favorites]

I've had many ear infections, including chronic ones as a child, and none of them were painful. I even went to the doctor once because I had been feeling the tale-tell pressure in my right ear and thought it might be infected, only to be told my right ear was healthy and my left ear, which felt fine, was infected. If I were you I would go to the doctor.
posted by wrabbit at 9:56 PM on December 2, 2014

Also, I get the q-tip habit. I actually use the eye side of a yarn needle to scratch ear itches now. It's not abrasive like a q-tip, no chance of packing the earwax in or taking too much out, and it has a smooth, polished curve unlike a bobby pin, which can scratch you.
posted by wrabbit at 10:00 PM on December 2, 2014 [1 favorite]

Put a dab of petroleum jelly on the tip of your pinky finger (all around the tip including the fingernail) and then swipe your pinky just inside your ear canal. My experience is that my ears get itchy because the skin is dry and the more I pick out the wax, the drier they get. Applying petroleum jelly every couple of days breaks this cycle.
posted by fozzie_bear at 10:35 PM on December 2, 2014

Missed the edit window: When I feel the itch I put my finger just behind my earlobe and push up (pushing the firm cartilage part, the concha, I think it's called) or I push in my tragus. This feels like it's squishing the walls of my ear canal together and usually provides enough relief to keep me from sticking my finger in my ear.
posted by fozzie_bear at 10:45 PM on December 2, 2014 [3 favorites]

I have a couple of these ear picks at home and work. I bought them sometime last year and have completely stopped using q-tips.
posted by royalsong at 7:40 AM on December 3, 2014

When I feel the itch I put my finger just behind my earlobe and push up (pushing the firm cartilage part, the concha, I think it's called) or I push in my tragus.

Yeah, alternating this with a bit of yanking on the earlobe is how I satisfy my ear itchies.
posted by poffin boffin at 8:05 AM on December 3, 2014

I'm also addicted to the q-tip and have mostly kicked the habit (though my husband will disagree with me considering how many q-tips are in the trash). I don't have anything coming out of my ears so I can't speak to that. However, I don't use nearly as many as I used to. It used to be a daily habit, like three times a day, now it's down to maybe twice a week, though I do itch just as often... I do everything people have already recommended here... I use my finger as Mary Mon Deau suggests, I also wobble behind my ear and tug at my earlobe as fozzie_bear and puffin boffin describe, and I use a yarn needle (or other short, smooth object) as wrabbit suggests. Mostly they work, but none of them quite scratch that itch like a q-tip can. Eargasm indeed.

So, yeah, I think it's time for a doctor (for the both of us). I actually have an appointment with an ENT in a few weeks because I have ringing in my ears and a chronic sinus infection that no antibiotics can touch. Funny how it didn't even occur to me until this thread that my ears might have something to do with that. Then again, no one asked how my ears felt, so there's that. Hope it works out for you.
posted by patheral at 10:08 AM on December 3, 2014

I'm not even close to a doctor. So this is a Very Bad Idea. You're probably crazy if you do this.

My mother had ears that were utterly terrifying. Not infected, but insanely itchy all of the time and crusty and would even get scabs. Every time she's had them looked at she'd be told it is eczema and that it would go away. After more than two years of misery and hearing that an Internet Stranger got MRSA from this same problem (while under the care of an ENT!), I did a bit of research. Found out what divers do, used to do, and a couple of studies (here's one). Burow's solution. Tested by the US Navy and used to be the standard ear drops for divers and swimmers. Until it was no longer allowed to be sold over the counter as ear drops (original version of Star Otic) and was replaced by isopropyl alcohol in a glycerin base. Which doesn't work as well. Also not available by prescription because the otic form is no longer manufactured (Domeboro Otic). It might be possible to get it from a compounding pharmacy, but I didn't check.

Anyway. You can still buy Domeboro in mix it yourself packets for soaking solution. I did some math to attempt to get a result close to the real stuff, and what they found effective in one of the studies. It isn't perfect. But the liquid Burow's available in some places as a soaking solution doesn't seem to be a high enough concentration (3.5 % minimum).

Bad Idea Ear Drops

1.5 oz. (45 ml) distilled water
1 oz. (30 ml) distilled white vinegar (5% acidity)
3 packets Domeboro powder

Heat the water, add to the powder, add the vinegar. Stir until dissolved. Let the mix sit until it separates. Pour off the clear liquid into a fairly sterile bottle.

To use: Warm up the solution in a cup of hot water. Use a dropper to fill the ear canal. 10 minutes each ear, twice a day. For 30 days, then as needed.

Again, not a good idea to do this. But it does work for my mother. She doesn't look scrofulous anymore, and her ears don't itch. She doesn't use q-tips either.
posted by monopas at 10:54 AM on December 3, 2014 [4 favorites]

I'm a grad student in audiology, not your audiologist, but I do look in an awful lot of ears these days.

The danger of q-tips and why we tell people not to use them is primarily because people who use them think they are cleaning their ears but they are actually making them more waxy. Wax naturally works its way out of your canal. Putting a q-tip (or any object whatsoever - knitting needle, letter opener, bobby pin, nails - yes these are all common things I hear about) doesn't remove the wax, it impacts it. You think you're scraping it out but you're really just shoving it in. Eventually you get these deep wax impactions that you'll notice when you stop hearing well, and then someone has to go in there and pull all of that out.

So yeah, it's not like q-tips are the absolute worst, you're just kidding yourself if you think you're doing something productive with them. You may think your ears are clean, but after you have one big, black chunk of q-tip impacted cerumen pulled from your canal, you won't use them again.

The danger with the sharper things is really that people are known to puncture their ear drums with them. You really don't want to puncture your ear drum. It's easier to do than you think.

The clear fluid is probably not effusion from otitis media (ear infection), unless its mucous looking. But I would probably get that checked out.

Just stop. The itching will subside. You know the wax is in there to lubricate and clean your canals so they don't get itchy right? To clean your ears, simply let some warm water in the shower run into and out of your canal.
posted by Lutoslawski at 2:44 PM on December 3, 2014

Addendums because I'm crazy and a little forgetful, but not stupid:

Mom reminded me that it is 5 minutes per ear, ten total.

And the solution should probably be tossed out after a week, and a fresh batch made.

Dosing and duration of treatment (solution concentration, 2x day for 30 days) based on what was most effective in one of the studies I found. Too sleepy to find it again tonight. Memail me if you really want me to dig it out.
posted by monopas at 10:57 PM on December 3, 2014

I get this sometimes. The main thing that helps me is to trying my best not to scratch. If I absolutely can't stand it, I make it quick and just use something like my finger instead of foreign objects. I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that I have a tendency towards allergies/eczema and I wear headphones a lot.

I also have gotten the fluid before but there wasn't any infection, it was just from scratching so much the skin became kind of raw/oozy. Not that you shouldn't get it checked though.
posted by Kimmalah at 1:31 AM on December 4, 2014

You think you're scraping it out but you're really just shoving it in. Eventually you get these deep wax impactions that you'll notice when you stop hearing well, and then someone has to go in there and pull all of that out.

Wait, I thought that would depend on which kind of earwax you have, the wet and sticky or the dry and crumbly? who has been telling me these earwax fibs, they must be stopped.
posted by poffin boffin at 9:13 AM on December 4, 2014

Since reading this thread (3 weeks ago), I've been dipping Q-tips in mineral oil and cleaning my ears (every few days). They itch less and I don't feel the need to use a Q-tip every day. If there is any gunk in there, hopefully the oil will soften that up and it will work itself out.
posted by H21 at 6:49 AM on December 18, 2014

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