Robert A. Hayden, DC, PhD, FICC
Question: I see people using Q-tips to clean their ears occasionally—particularly seniors or mothers caring for children. Is this a safe practice?
In a word, "No." I feel compelled to flesh that out just a bit so that my answer sounds more complete.
For trivia buffs, I found out that "Q-tip" is a proprietary name, and it means "quality tip." It is an outgrowth of Leo Gerstenzang's idea from the 1920s that was originally called a "Baby Gay." The term "Q-tip" has become like "Coke," a household term that is generic for all items that are similar in construction or use.
Interestingly, the most commonly reported use for these cotton swabs is in cleaning ears. This is ironically just about the only use for which they are not intended. There are all kinds of warnings out about this, including this one from www.qtip.com:
Always remember that Q-tips® cotton swabs are not to be used for cleaning inside the baby's ear canal (or yours!).
The wording seems clear to me (i.e., "always" and "not"), but the most common application for them, nevertheless, is swabbing ear canals. The danger here is two-fold: you can push ear wax further into the canal, causing an impaction and loss of hearing (an inconvenience) or puncture the eardrum (really bad). If you have done the former, when you speak, you will hear your voice loudly on the side of the impaction because sound does not have to travel through air to get to your eardrum—it goes through the bone in your skull. You can mimic this by plugging an open ear with your finger, then singing the Bama fight song. If you have the latter—a punctured ear drum—you have pain + deafness + some impending medical bills, and you may only enjoy half of your I-pod henceforth.
Ear wax, or cerumen, has a purpose. It protects the skin of the ear canal from water (for example, the water that might get there when you shower, get into snowball fights, or swim), and it prevents ear infections. When it builds up or gets hard, it can be bothersome.
If ear hygiene is a problem for you, first see a health care professional (HCP) for an otoscopic exam to be sure that wax is the only problem and that the eardrum is intact. Consult with your HCP about using an ear cleansing system designed for home use. There are ear drops you can get without prescription that are safe and effective.
Back to the Q-tips—the other uses seem limitless. To name a few of the hundreds of fascinating applications:
• You can apply medication to wounds with them.
• They are handy for cleaning an umbilical cord, if you have one of those.
• Tracking laser lenses on certain household and business appliances can be cleaned with them.
• Dirt and grime in the cracks of keyboards (between letters or numbers) might be accessible to a tip.
• They can clean smudges off sensitive equipment, such as the drum of your copier.
• People who do crafts find lots of clever ways to use them.
• Makeup can be applied with one of these, but please, not while driving.
• Very small people might use them for vaulting.
• MY PERSONAL FAVORITE: Taylor, one of our feline children, amuses himself for hours daily playing with them as Diane discards them.
Bottom line: celebrate the inventiveness of that great Polish-American by using a Q-tip for something other than your ear. Offer them as toys to your cat, for example, as a substitute for jewelry.