Everyday Hazards: Cotton Swabs
A word does not yet exist to describe the satisfaction of removing earwax via cotton swab. It is one of those hygienic guilty pleasures—like eyebrow tweezing or nail trimming. The unsightly golden goo our ears secrete is an evolutionary adaptation to remove dirt and other clutter from our canals, as well as to protect us from microbial invasion. Doctors plead us not to dig too deep. We say: “Bring out the cotton swabs!”
The consequence is that a significant number of people visit the emergency room each year due to cotton swab-related injuries. The data, gathered by the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) from hospital surveys, includes hundreds of cases of temporary hearing loss, cotton stuck in ear canals for days, and bloody earwax from improper swab use.
Cotton-tipped applicators are considered first-aid equipment by the CPSC, and make up the majority of injuries thus attributed. The odds a person will visit an emergency department due to an accident caused by first-aid equipment in a year are 1 in 7,163.
In comparison, you’re less likely to visit the emergency room in a year due to an accident involving more obviously dangerous implements such as a razor (1 in 7,794), or a chain saw (1 in 11,300), though most of that discrepancy is explained by the fact that many more people handle cotton swabs than chain saws each day.
So despite the temptation to remove impacted or excessive earwax, a medical problem that brings 12 million Americans to the doctor each year, experts recommend over-the-counter eardrops. Apparently they are much safer than cotton swabs.