A new study has found cotton-tip applicators like Q-Tips send 1,000 kids to the emergency room with ear injuries every month—that's 34 kids per day.

cleaning child's ear with cotton swab
Credit: GOLFX/Shutterstock

After bath time at our house, I'll often hand my 6- and 8-year-old daughters cotton-tipped swabs and tell them to clean their own ears, without putting too much thought into it. Untiil now, I hadn't worried about any potential dangers associated with what I assumed was part of a safe post-bath ritual.

But now a new study from Nationwide Children's Hospital and published in The Journal of Pediatrics reveals that, in fact, cotton-tip applicators such as Q-Tips send 1,000 kids to the emergency room per month, or about 34 every single day.

Researchers looked at data from 1990-2010 and found more than a quarter of a million little ones were treated in ERs for ear injuries related to cotton-tip applicators, including perforating the ear drum, infection, or even permanent hearing damage. They found most injuries were caused by cleaning the ears; others were a result of playing with the cotton tip applicators or kids falling with them in their ears. Interestingly, 77 percent of injuries happened when the kids used the swabs on their own, but 16 percent involved a parent helping. Two out of every three patients were younger than 8 years old, and about 40 percent were younger than 3.

Kris Jatana, M.D., a pediatric otolaryngologist at Nationwide Children's Hospital and lead author of the study, says the two biggest misconceptions he hears as an otolaryngologist are that the ear canals need to be cleaned in the home setting and that cotton-tip applicators should be used to clean them; both are incorrect. "The ear canal is designed to be self-cleaning and ear wax serves a role by trapping dirt or debris, helping it move away from the ear drum to the outside of the ear," he told Parents.com. "It also has antimicrobial properties to reduce [the] likelihood of infection. Ear wax within the canal does not usually need to be cleaned in the home setting, and our study shows that using cotton-tip applicators to clean children's ear canals can be dangerous." While they may seem harmless, the swabs can cause serious injuries to the ear drum, fragile hearing bones, and inner ear, Dr. Jatana adds.

*Raises hand.* I am totally guilty of not knowing these things.

The good news is that almost all patients in the study were treated and released. And Dr. Jatana also noted, "The number of overall injuries from cotton-tip applicators did decrease during the 21 years we looked at in our study." He added, "It is still unacceptably high. These products may seem harmless, but this study shows how important it is that they not be used to clean ears."

He offered these safety tips for parents to keep in mind:

  • Cotton-tip applicators can safely be used for cosmetics, arts/crafts, or household cleaning; do not use them to clean the ear canal.
  • Store cotton swabs out of reach of children and in a secured container.
  • Clean any visible wax from the outer portion of your child's ear canal with soap and water or a wet washcloth during baths.
  • For children or adults who suspect they may have a problem with excessive ear wax buildup in the ear canal, seek evaluation from a medical professional on what would be the best individualized treatment option.

Melissa Willets is a writer/blogger and soon-to-be mom-of-four. Find her on Facebook where she chronicles her life momming under the influence. Of yoga.