How can you safely clean your ears? Are cotton buds really bad?

The Art of Conversation by jessibot, on FlickrI was once told by an Ear Nose and Throat consultant that you should never put anything in your ear “smaller than your elbow”. I guess it was his witty way of saying that no fingers, bits of napkin, cotton buds, or, well, anything should go inside the ear canal.

Although ear wax doesn’t usually cause problems it can sometimes. Ear wax is perfectly normal and left on its own will naturally dry up and fall out. Putting a cotton bud (or Q-tip) in your ear is not a good idea; it may feel good but it will probably push ear wax further inside the ear – making problems more likely. Ramming ear wax deeper into your ear in this way could cause the wax to become impacted against the ear drum: symptoms from earwax build-up and impaction include dulled hearing, ear pain and a sensation of ‘fullness’ in the ear.

Rather than go poking with cotton buds, ear drops are a safer choice. Olive oil works well. Ear drops loosen the wax, helping the ear to clear itself. Chemists also sell other over the counter preparations.

There are other ways for ears to be cleaned, ‘ear irrigation’ being the most commonly recommended (and there is good evidence that it works). This involves water being ‘injected’ into the ear with a syringe, or sprayed in using an electric oral jet irrigator with a special ear irrigator tip). Ear irrigation should only be done by trained professionals because the ear drum can be damaged if not done properly.

Don’t bother with ear candling: it doesn’t work and can be dangerous.

Answer by Dr Stu

Question received from Facebook

Find out more about ear wax treatment here (NHS Choices)

Image: The Art of Conversation by jessibot, on Flickr


Article by Stuart Farrimond

March 3, 2014

Doctor Stu is editor of Guru Magazine. He originally trained as a medical doctor before deciding to branch out into lecturing, writing, editing and science communication. He drinks far too much coffee, eats lots of ice cream and has a bizarre love of keeping fit.
You can check out Doctor Stu’s blog at or his poncy personal website Here's his .

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