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March 12, 2019

This man's brain infection lends caution to cleaning your ears with cotton swabs

Part of a cotton swab was stuck in his ear for ... years

Men's Health Infection
ear brain infection cotton swab unsplash Sharon McCutcheon/Unsplash

Growing up, we were told that cleaning our ears were a part of standard hygiene. But there’s more and more evidence steering people away from this practice because it can do more harm than good.

Recent evidence includes the story of a 31-year-old man from England who develop a potentially life-threatening infection after the tip of a cotton swab became stuck inside his ear canal. The infection affected not only his hearing, but spread to the lining of his brain and caused neurological symptoms. All of this culminated in a seizure and being rushed to the hospital, Live Science reports.

The man's symptoms, however, started long before his seizure occurred, according to the report. He had been experiencing pain and discharge from his left ear for about 10 days prior to the seizure and had experienced headaches on the left side of his head that were so severe, they made him vomit. Additionally, he started having trouble remembering people's names.


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He told doctors that he had experienced left ear pain and hearing loss over the past five years and had been treated twice for severe ear infections on the same side, per the report

At the hospital, after discovering two abscesses in the bones at the base of his skull, adjacent to his left ear canal, he was diagnosed with “necrotizing otitis externa," or an infection in the soft tissue of the external auditory canal.

The man's doctors performed a minor surgery to explore his ear canal; during this operation, they located and removed the cotton swab tip that had gone missing. The swab was impacted and surrounded by wax and debris, suggesting that it had been there for some time, doctors included in the case report.

This is not the first such story. In fact, most health care providers agree that people don’t usually need to clean out their ears. But sometimes earwax and other debris can build up.

Earwax, or cerumen, leaves the body slowly. Chewing and moving the jaw pushes the earwax from the canal to the outer ear. When the earwax and dead skin it collects reaches the outer ear, it dries up and flakes off, according to Medical News Today

In fact, cleaning too often can lead to dry, itchy ears. Using an object — like the ill-fated cotton swab — for cleaning the earwax may actually push it back into the ear. Cleaning out earwax that is not causing any symptoms is not usually needed or recommended, Medical News Today adds.

The best way to safely remove ear wax at home, according to Very Well Health, begins by softening the wax. To do so, use an eyedropper to apply a few drops of baby oil, mineral oil, glycerin or hydrogen peroxide in your ear canal twice a day for no more than four to five days. Then, after a day or two, when the wax is softened, use a rubber-bulb syringe to gently squirt warm (body temperature) water into your ear canal. Tilt your head and pull your outer ear up and back to straighten your ear canal. When finished irrigating, tip your head to the side to let the water drain out.

After this, gently dry your outer ear. You may need to repeat this several times until the excess earwax falls out. The softening agents may only loosen the outer layer of the wax and cause it to lodge deeper in the ear canal or against the eardrum. If your symptoms don't improve after a few treatments, see your doctor.

It’s also worth noting that doctors and the United States Food and Drug Association (FDA) also warn against using earwax candles.

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