Retrospectacle: A Neuroscience Blog

Q-Tips Ravage Another Young Life

People, I need to say this. Its never a good idea to stick things–including Q-tips–in your ears. Despite the illusion of ‘cleaning’ your ear canal, often Q-tips just shove the ear wax further into the canal, or worse, can cause permanent damage by rupturing an eardrum. However, I had no idea that occasionally the cotton tip could lodge into your ear canal, causing temporary (but very real) deafness.

A boy from Haverfordwest, England, can hear on one side for the first time in nine years after a cotton wool bud suddenly popped out of his ear.

Jerome Bartens, 11, was diagnosed deaf in his right ear when he was two, causing him to struggle in school and strain to hear the TV and friends, Britain’s Daily Mail reported.

But when playing pool with his friends in a church hall Jerome felt a sudden pop. And out of his right ear came the tip of a cotton wool bud that had been wedged in for almost 10 years.

“It was just incredible — his hearing returned to normal in an instant. He was cured as suddenly as he became deaf. I had always suspected Jerome had stuck something in his ear when he was little and that was causing the problem. But the doctors and hearing specialists said it was wax and he would probably grow out of it,” said Jerome’s father, Carsten Bartens. “I am amazed they didn’t spot something as obvious as a cotton wool bud.”

So am I! Take home message of this story is, 1) there is a reason that your doctor looks in your ears, and 2) don’t shove things in there. If you really need to clean out earwax (it is there for a reason, you know) there are perfectly safe ear-drops that do the trick.

i-a691701a6c65d77bc78c875eee837617-no qtip.JPG


  1. #1 Matt Penfold
    January 29, 2008


    I know you are only quoting from an article, but Haverfordwest is not in England. It is in West Wales, about 20 miles from where I am now.

  2. #2 fullerenedream
    January 29, 2008

    Okay, it’s one thing if you’re a little kid. But I’ve had the tip of a Q-tip come off in my ear, and it’s not hard to grab it with tweezers and remove it.

    I’m sure there are other reasons not to stick things in your ears, but this one is easily dealt with.

  3. #3 Abbie
    January 29, 2008

    But…but… it feels so *good*… it can’t be wrong…

  4. #4 Scotty B
    January 29, 2008

    Yes, this can’t be stressed enough. Q-tips and children don’t mix! I have a young sister who decided it would be cute to walk around with Q-tips sticking out of her ears and ended up puncturing a big hole in her eardrum.
    She is okay, but (obviously) she doesn’t hear well out of that ear anymore.

  5. #5 Ktesibios
    January 29, 2008

    If his doctor thought that the deafness was caused by a buildup of wax, why on Earth didn’t it occur to him to try irrigating the kid’s ear to wash it out? Any family doctor can do that, and it would have washed the cotton ball right out.

  6. #6 Furlong
    January 29, 2008

    Yep, Haverfordwest is just about as far west as you can get in Wales. A hop, skip and a jump from St. David’s and Ramsay Island. I spent the night there 2 years ago.

  7. #7 Eric Juve
    January 29, 2008

    When I was a child I had a series of earaches (given my name, “earache” became my nickname)and I was finally taken to the family Doc and had my ear irrigated. Out came some wax and a piece of a paper match. It seems that a Doctor should have tried this in this case.

  8. #8 Ahcuah
    January 29, 2008

    I’m sure the ear wax is there for a reason, but sometimes it really does cause problems.

    One time I was having trouble hearing, and it felt that there was a big lump in there. My wife, very carefully, went after it with tweezers . . . The lump was an insect (no, not an earwig!) that had obviously gotten stuck in there, and my ear just kept adding wax and adding wax until it was a ball about 4mm in diameter.

  9. #9 Monimonika
    January 29, 2008

    Umm, this is a genuine question, so please do not take this the wrong way, but:

    What are Q-tips for, then?

  10. #10 John McKay
    January 29, 2008

    What kind of idiot doctor and passive mother did this poor kid have? Not being able to hear is very isolating, not to mention uncomfortable, and they left him in this state for ten years. Even if it was “just” earwax, you don’t grow out of something blocking your ear; the block has to come out. I have very fast growing wax, for some reason, and get a block in each ear about once a year. Irrigation was part of my regular check-up every year till I was in college, when I learned to do it myself.

  11. #11 Chad
    January 29, 2008

    I’m with Abbie; it just feels so good…

  12. #12 Charlie (Colorado)
    January 29, 2008

    They don’t have otoscopes in Wales?

  13. #13 Dave Briggs
    January 29, 2008

    Thanks for the warning! :~) I have never had a punctured ear drum but I put it on the, “to do not list” I wrote up at birth! LOL!
    Dave Briggs :~)

  14. #14 Ramon
    January 29, 2008

    There’s nothing wrong with cleaning your own ears with Q-tips, you can clearly feel when you get anywhere near your ear drums and nothing else cleans them out as well as a quick swab of a Q-tip. Just because it *can* be dangerous when done incorrectly, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it, or that it’s not safe to do. Kids are one thing, sure, don’t do it, but adults are another matter entirely.

  15. #15 Bryce M.
    January 30, 2008

    I’m more concerned when people shove scissors up their nose to trim nose hairs. Just saying…

  16. #16 Shelley Batts
    January 30, 2008

    Ramon, you might want to read this:

    And from the Q-tip website(

    “Q-Tips cotton swabs have more cotton at the tip* than any other swab, making them the safest, softest and gentlest tool you can use for family care. They also provide the ultimate precision, making them the perfect tool for uses outside your ear.”

    So, no, it is not perfectly safe to use Q-tips inside your ear canal. However Q-tips are not the problem, I’m sure they have many uses.

  17. #17 Karen
    January 30, 2008

    I just looked at the side of a box of Q-tips, and it has this warning:

    “If used to clean ears, stroke swab gently around the outer surface of the ear,[following in bold] without entering the ear canal. WARNING: [no longer bold] Use only as directed. Entering the ear canal could cause injury. Keep out of reach of children.”

  18. #18 Monimonika
    January 30, 2008

    As others have already mentioned, boxes of cottonswabs/Q-tips have warnings not to stick the things into the ear canal. But seriously, who uses Q-tips any other way? A soft damp towel would be my first choice if I need to clean my outer ear.

    The only other uses I can come up with for Q-tips are for makeup/precision-painting, belly-button cleaning, obsessive cleaning of kitchen/bathroom, or arts-&-crafts building material.

  19. #19 chris y
    January 31, 2008

    I believe Kurt Vonnegut once gave this advice at a commencement. He had been told to impart some wisdom for the graduates to take through life, so he said something like, “Never stick anything in your ears. Not only will it make you deaf, you’ll fall over all the time.”

  20. #20 Brian Renaud
    February 3, 2008

    But note that not all eardrops are perfectly safe:

    “… Dr. Daniel and his team studied the impact of Cerumenex on hearing. In addition, overall toxicity in the outer ear and changes in the nerve cells of the inner ear were analyzed.”

    “Harmful effects to many of the cells were observed after only one dose,” says Dr. Melvin Schloss co-author and MCH Director of Otolaryngology. “We observed reduced hearing, severe inflammation, and lesions to the nerve
    cells. ….”

  21. #21 False Prophet
    February 5, 2008

    Use an eyedropper to dispense a couple of millilitres of mineral oil (available over the counter at your pharmacy) into your ear canal. Tilt your head so the oil stays in your ear for 30 seconds or so. Then, tilt your head back and let the oil run out, then flush with water (a good place to do this is during a shower). Repeat for the other ear.

    The oil might leave your ears or neck greasy, but just clean that away with soap and water (another reason to do this during your shower).

  22. #22 David
    February 5, 2008

    If I may nerd out for just a moment – I wonder what happened to the development of his auditory pathway on that side? It’d be interesting to compare evoked potentials, psychophysical measures of auditory acuity, etc. for each ear to see if he really was “cured”.

  23. #23 Hank Roberts
    March 4, 2008

    I have an old friend who’s an emergency room doctor. One of his major hot buttons is having to deal — in between people carried in from car accidents and violence — with kids who are brought in by their parents because their ears are plugged up because they’ve used Q-tips regularly. He said they push enough wax deeper into the ear canal over time to accumulate a solid plug that’s a real pain to take out. “Pack it down” was the phrase.

    This varies with the heredity and stickiness of the ear was, so the fact that some people’s experience differs doesn’t contradict the observation that this happens.

New comments have been disabled.