For the love of God, please stop sticking things into your ear

Doctors are updating the guidelines on how to mind your earwax. Spoiler alert: Q-tips and ear candling are still bad for you.
Ear biometrics
You heard it here: The shape of your ear is just as distinguishing as your fingerprints; no two ears, even on the same person, are alike. Startup Descartes Biometrics has come up with an app that can identify smartphone users by the way they press their phone to their ear and cheek—though its less-than-consistent recognition means that perhaps this particular app isn't yet ready for prime time. Travis Isaacs/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Every now and then, doctors update their “best practice” guidelines based on new research and new problems that come up. On Tuesday, the American Academy of Otolaryngology released their latest thoughts on earwax.

For the most part, the rules for ear doctors haven’t changed much since the last ones came out in 2008. But the new guidelines explain how doctors should treat certain ear issues, and how to respond to stickier earwax problems. It also includes some helpful guidelines on how you, the patient, should take care of your ears.

One notable change, says Seth Schwartz, chair of the guideline update group, is that the “ear candling” is now called out specifically as something patients definitely should not do.

The alternative medicine practice of ear candling, which uses a hollow candle to (supposedly) pull earwax out of the ear, doesn’t actually work—and it can damage your ear canal and eardrum.

The guidelines’ overall message to patients is simple: STOP STICKING THINGS INTO YOUR FREAKING EARS. If this directive comes as a surprise to you, it’s probably because your eardrums were already too damaged for you to hear your doctor’s pleas.

And let’s just make one more thing clear: earwax isn’t dirty. It actually helps keep your ears clean by trapping dust and dirt. If left alone, new wax will usually push out old wax, and you won’t have any problems. But sticking things like Q-tips, paper clips, hair pins, and other random crap into your ear usually just pushes earwax deeper inside, blocking off parts of the ear canal and potentially damaging your hearing machinery.

Illustrated diagram showing the outer, middle and inner ear.
Earwax helps stop dirt from getting inside the delicate machinery of your ear. To clean your ears, doctors recommend only washing the outside (auricle) part. Q-tips and other items that dig inside the ear canal can cause more harm than good. peterjunaidydp / Deposit Photos

“When people stick Q-tips or other foreign objects into their ears, they can traumatize the skin, allowing bacteria to get in and cause painful infections,” says Schwartz.

In general, he says, the best way to clean your ears is to just wipe off the outside after showering—when the hot water has loosened things up a bit.

Here is a complete list of things that you should not do to your ears, according to the guidelines. Don’t:

  1. Over-clean your ears. Excessive cleaning may irritate the ear canal, cause infection, and even increase the chances of severe earwax impaction.

  2. Put anything smaller than your elbow in your ear. Your mother was right! Cotton swabs, hair pins, car keys, toothpicks . . . these can all injure your ear. They can cause lacerations (cuts) in the ear canal, perforations (holes) in the eardrum, and/or dislocation of the hearing bones, leading to hearing loss, dizziness, ringing, and other symptoms of ear injury.

  3. Use ear candles. There is no evidence that they remove impacted earwax, and candling can cause serious damage to the ear canal and eardrum.

  4. Ignore your symptoms. Just because you shouldn’t stick a Q-tip in your ear doesn’t mean it’s impossible for earwax to become a problem. Seek medical attention if you can’t shake the feeling that you need to purge your ears.

  5. Irrigate or try earwax-removing/softening drops if you have had ear surgery or a perforated eardrum, unless specifically cleared to do so by your otolaryngologist (ear, nose, and throat surgeon).

  6. Forget to clean your hearing aids as the manufacturer and your hearing health professional recommend.

If you’re experiencing ear pain, bleeding, ringing ears, or having problems hearing, these symptoms may be caused by earwax blocking your ear canal. Leave the Q-tips alone and go see a doctor.