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."
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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.
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.
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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.
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