How can I detox from my q-tip addiction?
November 26, 2007 10:57 AM   Subscribe

How can I get over my q-tip addiction?

I have, for a long time, been totally addicted to swabbing my ears with q-tips. I know it's bad and wrong and you're not supposed to stick anything smaller than your elbow in your ear, but if I don't do it, they itch like mad and drive and me nuts all day.

That said, I have this annoying echoey problem in my one ear where I can hear my pulse, which I believe is possibly related to my q-tip use and my ear being packed full of wax. This echoey problem is almost, but not quite as annoying as the itchy ears. More importantly though, it's making it hard for me to hear people when conversing in restaurants or otherwise noisy environments.

So I'm really, really trying to quit. I've managed to go a couple of days at a time without swabbing, but then my ears (one more than the other) just itch until I can't concentrate on anything until I do something about it, and then I swab them and they feel better. Until the next day.

I've tried ear candling, but it didn't really help. (And, we tried burning an ear candle over an empty sink instead of in my ear, and the amount and type of crud that were in the candle when we were done were almost identical to the one we burned in my ear, so we're pretty sure ear candling is a big hokey scam in general.)

So, any mefites have any hints or tips for things to do to help me "detox" from q-tips? Or things I could to solve my ear wax problem in general? Or alternative causes for my echoey pulse hearing issue so I can just go back to using those precious, wonderful cotton swabs on a daily basis and not worry about it damaging my hearing?
posted by jacquilynne to Health & Fitness (45 answers total) 28 users marked this as a favorite
As to itchy ears, I find that if I dip my Q-tip into vaseline and stick it in, and smear the vaseline all over inside, that stops the itching.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 11:01 AM on November 26, 2007

You can buy drops to soften and get rid of your ear wax. I believe they are usually found near the eye-care/contact solution stuff at the drugstore and will say "ear wax removal aid" on the bottle. If it's really packed down right now, you might have to go to a doctor and get him/her to take it out with the ear-wax-removal thing. (I've had this done at a random sort of check up after the doctor looked in my ears. However, she said, "It's a good thing you don't use Q-tips cause that always makes it harder to get the wax out."
posted by Airhen at 11:03 AM on November 26, 2007

Go to your doctor, and have them clean your ears out. If it's not a severe blockage, they'll shoot some warm water and peroxide in there to clean it out.

You can also get OTC earwax cleaning stuff, but they're not easy to use.

Do not stick ANYTHING in your ear larger than a pirate... erm your elbow.
posted by SansPoint at 11:03 AM on November 26, 2007 [1 favorite]

Is it just your ears, or do you have other personal-cleanliness tics? If you really think you've got an earwax problem (which, IANAD, but I think you do- hearing your pulse like that isn't normal), go see an ENT.

FWIW, I stick swabs in further than "they" say you should and nothing bad has ever happened to me.
posted by mkultra at 11:04 AM on November 26, 2007

You can use an Ototek loop to get the wax out and scratch your itchy ear canals safely. Debrox can help to get out the wax that's out of the reach of the Ototek loop. If the Debrox can't get the impacted wax out of your ears, you can get them irrigated professionally. A family member of mine had hers done at a local urgent care center.
posted by zsazsa at 11:04 AM on November 26, 2007

Yes, you have impacted wax in your ears.

First, see a doctor to check your ears so any wax can be removed with a jet of warm water from a syringe. Ask about the technique, and if you're lucky, you'll get a syringe of yours to take home. failing that, buy one at a large drugstore. It's quite easy to do at home AS NEEDED, NOT DAILY, when you feel as if you have impacted wax again.

You;re probably experiencing itching because you've irritated the ear canal with the swabs. Talk to the doctor syringing your ears and see if a couple of days of hydrocortisone will break the itch cycle. (I guess that would have to be LIGHTLY applied with a q-tip. I trust you not to go back to your bad habits if this is something you have to do, OK?)

Let your ears clean themselves from now on. If they act up, syringe them yourself as needed.

posted by maudlin at 11:05 AM on November 26, 2007

listen to these guys, have a ear doctor remove your wax professionally, don't fuck your ears up by doing it yourself
posted by matteo at 11:08 AM on November 26, 2007

My wife went to a dermatologist and got a prescription for some sort of gel to treat psoriasis in her ears. She said it helped a lot with the itchy ears she had. This is in Toronto, so I'll ask her the name of the dermatologist she saw.
posted by GuyZero at 11:08 AM on November 26, 2007

Get your ears irrigated. If you've been pushing and impacting years of wax down with swabs, the most disgusting plug imaginable will pop out, and you'll suddenly have gloriously acute hearing. You can also try softening the plug at home with olive oil or an ear wax kit and then gently irrigating with a bulb syringe, or by tilting your ear up toward the shower spray.

(If your ears itch all the time, you might have a skin condition like eczema or psoriasis, or some kind of infection...or it might be irritation from constant swabbing).
posted by peachfuzz at 11:09 AM on November 26, 2007

Re the other suggestions:

* The softening drops are just mineral oil. From experience, these just gave me greasy ear wax and an oily drip down my neck.
* I'm feeling really squicky about any attempt to carve out wax with a loop. In addition to the potential damage to your ear drum, you could irritate the canal and get itchier.

Trust me, I have my Dad's ability to produce a lot of ear wax. I've learned the hard way what really works. Live your life, and when you notice a change in pressure or the quality of your hearing, just use a warm water syringe.
posted by maudlin at 11:09 AM on November 26, 2007

Fixing the ear wax problem: use wax softener for a few days, then either go in to a doctor for an ear lavage, or use an irrigation piston syringe to wash it out. You might want to see the doctor the first time to get a sense of how to use the syringe. Warning: the wax softener may, initially, make the hearing loss worse until you clean out the ear.

Itching in general: see an allergist.
posted by L. Fitzgerald Sjoberg at 11:09 AM on November 26, 2007

Are you Asian/Native American? You may have the dry earwax gene. I do and it drives me nucking futz. Little bits are constantly rattling around in there and I simply have to clean my ears to get them out.

If you shower in the morning, try letting some warm water into your ear for 20-30 seconds each. That'll hydrate that wax and it won't fall all over. Repeat daily.
posted by unixrat at 11:09 AM on November 26, 2007

After you clean your ears out (with water), you can use 1% hydrocortisone cream (OTC at any drugstore) to help the itch. My doctor had me use it.
posted by IndigoRain at 11:12 AM on November 26, 2007

You might consider getting an otoscope. It's the thing that your doctor sticks into your ear while getting a good look. I bought one for my dog (because he's got floppy ears and jumps into nasty muddy water a lot) and found that the joy of messing around with my own ear canals was satisfied by peeking into my dog's and the cats' and anything else willing to sit still long enough.
posted by jamaro at 11:12 AM on November 26, 2007 [1 favorite]

My ears also love q-tips. It's a delicious feeling, isn't it? It's like an eargasm. I'm lucky that I haven't had any ear infections. If I don't do it, the insides of my ears feel dry and itchy, so I know where you're coming from.

Here's a forum thread that has a lot of information about pulsatile tinnitus (audible pulse sounds in your ears). Your q-tipping may not be causing your echoey problem. You should probably have it checked out, though, just to make sure it's not an underlying problem (like high blood pressure).

I don't know if this would be safe idea for you, but it is something that I personally believe keeps my ears clear of wax. About once every 2 weeks, I place a few drops of hydrogen peroxide in my ear and lie down for about 10 minutes and let it bubble, then roll over and repeat for the other ear.

If you don't want to try the hydrogen peroxide, perhaps you'd find some relief by using Similisan Healthy Ear Way Relief drops. I've heard good stuff about those. They're a little more expensive than regular ear drops, but I think you get what you pay for in this case.

Whatever you decide, best of luck to you and your earries!
posted by susiepie at 11:16 AM on November 26, 2007 [1 favorite]

I was able to forego the normal doctor visit with a $1 ear bulb (link is to a box of 12, but you can just go buy one at any drug store). This was back in college when I couldn't afford to go see a doctor. The school nurse just told me to lay on my side and filled my ear with a 1:1 dilution of hydrogen peroxide and water. Let it bubble for 10 minutes, then flush with warm water via the ear bulb.

I've actually done straight hydrogen peroxide when it gets really bad, but the skin in your ear gets a little irritated if you don't dilute the H2O2.
posted by mysterious1der at 11:19 AM on November 26, 2007

Never bother with ear candling again. It's new age hokum; the burning wax doesn't generate any vacuum or suck any toxins out.

The reason people believe in ear candling is that the paper and wax soot and combustion products look like dirty earwax apparently. Apparently people occasionaly get hot wax in their ears even.
posted by sebastienbailard at 11:21 AM on November 26, 2007

Re: ear candling: I know, I did the same experiment you did, and found that much of what candling enthusiasts call ear wax is actually produced by the candle itself.

However! After an ill-advised experiment with a Q-tip (ow! bad! never again!), I managed to dislodge a wad of wax and shove it deep into my ear, causing pain and partial deafness.

I tried warm water, peroxide, wax-softening drops, etc. and was just on the verge of going to the doctor -- when I let a friend try ear-candling me. And it TOTALLY HELPED. I got up free from pain and able to hear normally again.

So as far as your current wax impaction is concerned, don't dismiss candling (done by a competent practitioner) as a cheaper and more pleasant alternative to visiting the doctor.

As far as kicking the Q-tip habit, I would advise regular, gentle irrigation with warm water. And wear a rubber band on your wrist and snap it when you feel the urge to use the evil Q-tip.
posted by ottereroticist at 11:22 AM on November 26, 2007

If you get the wax out professionally and that doesn't eliminate the itchiness, you might look into a prescription for Dermotic (moisturizing oils and a mild steroid). I had itchy ear canals for more than two years and tried everything (including irresponsible Q-Tip behavior). It nearly drove me mad. After a few days on the Dermotic my ears were practically itch-free.
posted by j-dawg at 11:26 AM on November 26, 2007

Nth-ing the hydrogen peroxide and showering methods. I have the earwax gene; my son's inherited it.

I had major earwax problem from early childhood. My parents would put a product called "Debrox" in my ears to combat blockage.

As a teen, I went to a doctor; she filled my ear canal with hydrogen peroxide, and had me lay on the affected side for ~15 minutes. It sounded like rice krispies in my brain! (Kind of comforting, believe it or not.) She then flushed the H2O2 out with a solution of warm water and rubbing alcohol. Cleeeean as a whistle. Repeat if necessary. However, a temporary solution. Depending on how fast your ear "grows sweet potatoes" (as my grandmother used to call it).

I have replicated the procedure at home, using a baby-snot bulb syringe (available in the ENT section of any drugstore chain), and have had marble-sized orange plugs of wax come out after the flushing.

Thankfully, after many years, and having adopted the method of flushing the ears out with warm water whilst showering, the wax build-up, well, doesn't build up anymore.

Whatever method: neigh neigh, from Q-tips stay away! Good luck.
posted by not_on_display at 11:29 AM on November 26, 2007

Response by poster: I live in Canada, so a doctor's visit is certainly a possibility if it seems like a good idea. I did have her check my blood pressure when I was conjecturing that as my hearing problem, but I probably didn't tell her *why* I wanted it checked, just that I wanted it checked. It was slightly elevated, but no more than one would expect given that I weight 350lbs.
posted by jacquilynne at 11:31 AM on November 26, 2007

Do people really go to the doctor just to get their ears cleaned? Is it a regular maintenance thing (like, "time for my quarterly ear cleaning!")? I've only heard of people going to the doc for this kind of thing if their ear is totally plugged up or something. I've always been a q-tip girl, but now I'm curious and afraid I might be messing my ears up.
posted by vytae at 11:49 AM on November 26, 2007

I just wanted to commiserate and say that I am also a hardcore Q-tip addict. To to point of OCD at times- at the peak of my "issue" I was cleaning my ears about 5-6 times a day. Major irritation ensued. And I did get the pulse echo thing, but only when the irritation turned into some sort of cyst in my ear canal. Yeah, that was super painful.

I've managed to get it under control, but I can't break the habit. However, I asked my doctor to check out my ears for impacted wax, and there was none. Like nothing at all. Cause I never give it the chance.
posted by kimdog at 11:51 AM on November 26, 2007

I've had this before too. You just need to have your ear canals irrigated, as several people have already said. This is much easier if you first use the wax-softening stuff you can buy at the drugstore. Then go to your doctor and they will clean them out for you. This is a very common procedure and they will probably have a nurse do it. If you don't have insurance, you can buy a DIY version also, but I've found that the ones at the doctor's office are more effective. Also, they can look inside your ear to check that they've gotten all the wax.
posted by number9dream at 11:54 AM on November 26, 2007

I produce a crazy amount of earwax and as a result, used to get ear infections quite frequently.
During one visit, my doctor asked, "Do you use Q-Tips?"
"Yes," I said.
"It's like tamping down a Civil War cannon."

That did it for me. I still have the ear wax but I haven't had an infection in years because whenever I'm tempted to go digging, I think of that image. Small amounts of Vaseline might keep the skin in there from itching up.
posted by Terminal Verbosity at 12:01 PM on November 26, 2007

For the Q-tip addicts: an anecdote from Penn Jillette.
posted by simbiotic at 12:01 PM on November 26, 2007

vytae, going to the doctor once to get it done professionally when your ears get plugged makes sense, but yeah, it's not the best use of a medical professional's time if you keep going back. I used to see a doctor once a year or so just because I had such a problem with ear wax getting impacted as I rooted around with q-tips (and oil and other tricks didn't seem to work). Now I leave my ears the hell alone (except for water in the shower), and irrigate them myself maybe every 18-24 months.

But yeah, ditch the q-tips. Most people's ears clean themselves quite well. Let warm water run into your ear canals during your shower. And if you do produce copious amounts of ear wax, learn to syringe as needed.
posted by maudlin at 12:04 PM on November 26, 2007

Actually, if you've really impacted the wax (which it sounds like you may have, given that your hearing is affected), there will be none of that "irrigation by a nurse"'ll be sent to an ENT specialist who will use an alarming array of sharp pointy dental-looking hooks and sticks to carefully pry out the nastiest crap you have ever seen, without puncturing your eardrum. Then you will NEVER, EVER want to abuse q-tips ever again.

Or at least that's, um, what a friend of mine says.....
posted by sock it to me monkey at 12:11 PM on November 26, 2007

Do people really go to the doctor just to get their ears cleaned? Is it a regular maintenance thing (like, "time for my quarterly ear cleaning!")? I've only heard of people going to the doc for this kind of thing if their ear is totally plugged up or something. I've always been a q-tip girl, but now I'm curious and afraid I might be messing my ears up.

I know several people who have this done every year (or every few years) by their GP when they're in for a general checkup, or some other purpose - in most cases, it doesn't take a specialist, and it's really quick.

I had it done every few months by an ENT, but that was back when I wore hearing aids in both ears, and was having a lot of ear infections. Call me an edge case.

Re: sock it to me monkey. Oh yeah. That stuff feels awesome. (Unless they go for the vacuum, which I always thought was kinda painful, although I felt much better afterwards.)
posted by spaceman_spiff at 12:23 PM on November 26, 2007

I used to use Q-tips on a daily basis, until the morning I woke up feeling like I had water in my ear canal. After ages of tilting my head to one side and shaking, this hard little ball of earwax flew out. It was disgusting but wonderful. A few weeks later, the same thing happened with my other ear.

I still use Q-tips, but much less frequently (perhaps twice weekly?), and I make sure to swab the sides of my ear canal without pushing in, and I haven't had wax balls rattling around my ear canal since.

You might not have the same luck spontaneously launching wax from your ears, so I recommend the hydrogen peroxide route. Sometimes I dampen a Q-tip with hydrogen peroxide and very gently (no pressure) coat the inside of my ear with it. It feels nice and tickly, the ear-canal equivalent of Pop Rocks.

You're not supposed to use swabs at all in your ears, of course, so take my advice with a grain of salt, but it works ok for me.
posted by Metroid Baby at 12:30 PM on November 26, 2007

I have hard earwax and use a bamboo ear pick (probably available at a japanese sundries store). You can easily take out an eardrum with this so I can't actually recommend using this, but just telling you what works for me.
posted by jefftang at 12:38 PM on November 26, 2007

I get problems with my ears too, a combination of otitis (flaky skin), earwax and the narrowest ear canals one nurse had ever seen. I bought a dropper bottle from a chemist, fill it up with olive oil, stick it in the microwave for 20-25 seconds (obviously depends on your microwave, it needs to be warm but not give you third degree burns...), drip half the glass tube into each ear, lie on your side for 10 minutes, then pop cotton wool loosely into each ear afterwards to soak up the excess.
I should probably do it every week or so, but often forget and end up doing it when the rubbish in there gets intolerable...
posted by etc at 1:48 PM on November 26, 2007

Have to piggyback. I'm like vytae and kimdog. I do it once or twice a day, usually just after bathing. Ahh, wonderful, I agree with you. I doubt I have wax because doctors have looked in my ears even recently for general exam and said nothing about my ears, and I have exceptional hearing. Point being that I don't think using a q-tip to clean daily or as needed is a bad thing. If gunk is coming out, that seems not excessive q-tipping, but rather good because gunk's not building up.

The stories about putting liquids other than a scrub of soap and water into the ear are scary to me. Washcloth on a fingertip is enough to moisten and loosen whatever and keep it coming out, seems to me. Nth-ing the bogus nature of candling.

Go to a doctor and see if there's an actual wax problem that needs fixing or if q-tips are okay. Seems a lot of myths about ears floating around, and hearing is not something you want to damage.

I hear nerve firing, or less often pulse sounds, occasionally, but I put that down to stress overload, being overtired.
posted by Listener at 1:49 PM on November 26, 2007

This previous discussion on Metafilter has stuck with me because of a couple of especially nasty comments.
posted by painquale at 2:04 PM on November 26, 2007

I've been told by a doctor that the reason you aren't supposed to use swabs is because you might accidentally go to deep and stab your ear drum, however absent doing this its fine. So if you've been doing it for years and haven't stabbed yourself yet you really don't have to worry about it, however IANAD. But I do swab my ears, it's the only way I don't get chronic ear aches.
posted by whoaali at 2:10 PM on November 26, 2007

Seconding the Penn Jillette link. Here's an excerpt. He had to have surgery under general anaesthetic because of his Q-tip habit:
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."
Worth taking a look at.

Also, speaking as someone who quit Q-tips after reading about that and couple of similar anecdotes from friends: The way to stop using Q-tips is not to throw them away and not buy more.
posted by LobsterMitten at 2:15 PM on November 26, 2007

er, rather, "is to throw them away and not buy more".
posted by LobsterMitten at 2:16 PM on November 26, 2007

I love the feeling of q-tipping my ears, too. When I'm in the car, and frustrated, I notice myself sticking all manner of pointy things in my ears, from the ends of my sunglasses to keys to stretched out paper clips. I bought an ear pick from a Japanese store and I love it. One one side, there's an curved tip that is a hard pick used to scrape out wax (I have heard Asian people's earwax is flaky vs. waxy, which would make sense for them to use use a pick). On the other side, there's a soft, rubber honeycomb-tipped looking thing that gently massages and pulls wax out. That's the side I use most often, as I feel it will do less damage to my canals.
posted by HotPatatta at 2:30 PM on November 26, 2007

I'm feeling really squicky about any attempt to carve out wax with a loop. In addition to the potential damage to your ear drum, you could irritate the canal and get itchier.

The Ototek loop mentioned above doesn't go deep enough to damage your ear drum. Of course you could irritate the canal.

I don't care what anyone says, I cannot stop using Q-tips. My ears feel awful if I don't use them.
posted by agregoli at 2:44 PM on November 26, 2007

Murine's new Earigate system offers a unique, reversed fluid flow means of cleaning the ear canal. The demonstration video is one of the "Now, why didn't I think of that?" moments.
posted by paulsc at 2:51 PM on November 26, 2007

Nothing to add on the q-tip issue, but the pulsatile tinnitus is definitely something that you want to get checked out. Seriously, I had it for 8 months before something more serious happened. A friend had it for ten years before she found out about a serious condition that was causing it. Feel free to contact me if you want more specifics.
posted by sulaine at 6:10 PM on November 26, 2007

Response by poster: Well, I went out and bought some ear drops, and also the Earigator. Neither of them resulted in any noticaeble wax coming out. It may have to be a trip to the doctor because either earwax isn't my problem, or OTC isn't my solution.
posted by jacquilynne at 7:59 PM on November 26, 2007

Just want to add that candling not only bogus but dangerous. People have severely burned their ears, causing hearing loss, among other things. Bad idea. Waste of time and money. Possibility of hot wax on your ear drum.
posted by fructose at 10:12 PM on November 26, 2007

oh man, i'm a total q-tip addict, and if i weren't stuck in the hospital right now, i'd be filling my ears with hydrogen peroxide and water. i want a marble sized ball of wax to come out!

i'm guessing the maternity ward doesn't do ear cleanouts. dang. :|
posted by pyjammy at 6:20 PM on November 27, 2007

I had an itchy ear. I damaged my eardrum. Now I have a constant ringing in one ear. Quit while you're ahead.
posted by mecran01 at 1:42 PM on February 26, 2008

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