The Joy Of Ear-Cleaning

Doctors agree you shouldn't clean your ears by sticking Q-tips in them. Otolaryngologist Dennis Fitzgerald explains why it feels so good and why it's so bad.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

ANDREA SEABROOK, host:

Now, a disclaimer. NPR is not responsible for damage done by the listener to his or her own body after hearing the following segment. Seriously, though, last month the American Academy of Otolaryngology put out new guidelines on ear cleaning. The rules pretty much boil down to something your mom might tell you. Do not put anything in your ear, certainly not a Q-tip. It's bad for you. So why does it feel so good? That's this week's "Science Out of the Box."

(Soundbite of music)

SEABROOK: I'm in the studio now with Dr. Dennis Fitzgerald. He is an otologist - that's an ear doctor - here in Washington. And Dr. Fitzgerald, why does it feel so good to clean your ears?

Dr. DENNIS FITZGERALD (Otologist): Well, there's probably two answers to the question. The first answer, and probably the most common reason that people like to get a Q-tip into their ear, is that they've already cleaned all of the wax out of their ear. And wax is a protective component of our ear canals, so that once you clean all the wax out, then the ear starts to itch.

SEABROOK: OK. So that tells me why people do it in the first place.

Dr. FITZGERALD: Right.

SEABROOK: Why does it feel so good?

Dr. FITZGERALD: Well, there are a lot of nerve endings in the ear. And a lot of those nerves are hooked up to other parts of our body, especially internal organs. Certain nerves that are in the skin of the ear canal connect to the intestinal organs.

SEABROOK: Really?

Dr. FITZGERALD: And many centuries gone by, when the Romans were having their orgies, they wanted to eat as much food as they could eat. And then sometimes they would want to regurgitate so that they could eat more food.

SEABROOK: They had these - right, they had these vomitoriums.

Dr. FITZGERALD: Right, right. And one of the cute little ways they had of making themselves regurgitate was to tickle their ear canal with a feather.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. FITZGERALD: And that would trigger a reflex. They would regurgitate. Then, they could go back to the food orgy and have many more courses of their favorite foods.

SEABROOK: Isn't this a lovely conversation? Now, are you going to tell me, Dr. Fitzgerald, that you never put Q-tip in your ear, ever?

Dr. FITZGERALD: I'm going to tell you that I never, ever, ever put a Q-tip in my ear.

SEABROOK: Why not?

Dr. FITZGERALD: Because they create no end of havoc and trouble by pushing wax in further. They also scratch the skin of the ear canal and lead to infections. And the real horror stories are that someone's cleaning their ear out with a Q-tip, and someone happens to hit their elbow, and that Q-tip goes through the ear drum into the middle ear. And so, if you want to know horror stories about Q-tips, talk to the ear doctors, because we've seen them all.

SEABROOK: Oh, God! I can't even think about it. It makes my teeth hurt. Dr. Dennis Fitzgerald, thanks so much for coming in.

Dr. FITZGERALD: It was my pleasure.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Finally, Guidelines On Cleaning Ears Released

Close-up of a child's ear
iStockphoto.com

Got A Runny Nose?

No one likes to have a runny nose or a stuffed-up head.

  

But a small study suggests that nasal irrigation can cut down on congestion.

  

On average, the symptoms of congestion and head pain of study participants improved about 30-40 percent when using the technique.

  

Researchers don't know if nasal irrigation actually removes the allergens or germs that cause infection.

  

But the studies do suggest that when people rinse their passages regularly, they seem to be less prone to sinus infections.

  

Read That Story

Some 12 million people a year seek medical treatment for impacted earwax. Now, the American Academy of Otolaryngology–Head and Neck Surgery Foundation is releasing clinical guidelines on the management of earwax impaction.

The guidelines suggest that patients and doctors keep in mind that earwax, technically known as cerumen, is a beneficial, self-cleaning agent with protective properties. It should be removed only when it builds up to a point where it causes symptoms such as pain or hearing loss.

Appropriate options for physicians to treat cerumen impaction are:

• cerumenolytic (wax-dissolving) agents, such as water or saline

• irrigation or ear syringing, a procedure that involves a clinician injecting a stream of water into the ear canal.

• manual removal with special instruments or a suction device

Inappropriate or harmful interventions are:

• inserting cotton-tipped swabs into the ear canal

• oral jet irrigators, such as a Waterpik

• ear candling, a technique that involves inserting a paraffin coated tube into the ear and then lighting it

There are no proven ways to prevent cerumen impaction, but not inserting cotton-tipped swabs or other objects in the ear canal is strongly advised. Individuals at high risk, e.g., hearing-aid users, should consider seeing a clinician every six to 12 months for routine cleaning.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.