You really shouldn’t clean your ears with a cotton swab.
That’s what a 31-year-old man discovered after he collapsed with a seizure and was taken to the emergency room.
He had been suffering discharge and pain in his left ear for 10 days, which progressed to headaches, nausea and vomiting. His general practitioner had prescribed him antibiotics for a severe ear infection, according to a recent report in the journal BMJ Case Reports.
At the hospital, the man admitted that he had recently been having difficulty remembering names, and was confused and drowsy. He also said he had been having intermittent ear pain and hearing loss for the last five years.
To figure out what was wrong, the doctors took CT and MRI scans of his skull. The scan showed abscesses in his skull as well as soft tissue in his ear canal. They also swabbed the discharge from his ear and found that it contained a dangerous bacteria.
They gave him more antibiotics to try to solve the problem, but the team decided that they needed to go in. After putting the patient under general anesthesia, the doctors explored his ear canal.
Inside, they found a piece of cotton – part of a cotton swab that had been left behind. They pulled it out, cleared the ear canal of debris, and performed a small procedure to remove infected cells from the ear.
The doctors diagnosed the man with necrotizing external otitis (NEO), a rare infection that originates in the external ear canal, with inflammation of the underlying temporal bone. It usually occurs in elderly diabetic patients, not relatively young and healthy people.
Left untreated, the condition can progress to skull base osteomyelitis, a potentially fatal infection of a bone in the base of the skull.
Fortunately, once the cotton bud was out and after taking more antibiotics, the patient healed. A CT scan 10 weeks later showed that everything was back to normal and he reported no further symptoms.
“Most importantly, he is no longer using cotton buds to clean his ears!” wrote the authors.
The case study’s authors are clear about that: “The use of cotton buds inside ears is common and has long been recognised to cause several complications including trauma, tympanic membrane perforation, impacted earwax, infection and retention of the cotton bud,” they wrote.
A recent study found that around 34 children every day were treated in U.S. hospitals for injuries related to cotton swabs.
According to a guide from SickKids Hospital in Toronto, “nothing smaller than your elbow” should go in your ear, since cotton swabs just push the wax in further and pack it tighter. A soft washcloth to wipe the outside will do.