Ever been told you’re not supposed to put cotton swabs in your ears? Well, it’s true. If you look at a box of Q-tips, it even has a warning not to insert their product into your ear canal. If their packaging is to be believed, cotton swabs are actually meant for removing cosmetics around the eyes, cleaning your keyboard, and doing other delicate tasks in tiny areas.
But despite the blatant labeling on the box, many people continue popping cotton swabs into their ears and swirling them around to remove wax. And otolaryngologists (also known as ENTs) have asked the world many times to knock it off.
These docs don’t just have the hardest to spell title — they care for one of the body’s most complex systems. So, it’s not surprising there are a few common misunderstandings about how we should take care of our ears, noses and throats. Mary Czerny, MD, a board-certified otolaryngologist (ENT) with Baptist ENT Specialists, spoke with Juice about four common questions asked by her patients, searched on the internet, and generally misunderstood by the public.
Why am I not supposed to use cotton swabs to clean my ears?
“The ears are a self-cleaning organ. There are fibers in the ear canal that help push wax and other debris out,” Dr. Czerny explained. “Q-tips override that mechanism and you end up pushing more wax in than you get out. Earwax has two helpful properties: one is that it’s antibacterial and antifungal, and the second is that it protects your ears from debris getting into the deeper parts of the ear canal.
“Some people overproduce earwax or have build-up due to wearing hearing aids, and we may see them in our office for removal,” she added. “People can use wax-softening drops that are over-the-counter or even a few drops of mineral or baby oil to soften the wax.”
How are our sinuses and ears really connected, and why do they seem to share infections so easily?
“The Eustachian tube is how they’re connected, which goes from the back part of the nose to the space behind the eardrum,” Dr. Czerny said. “Anything affecting the nose, like allergies or a sinus infection, can also cause swelling in the Eustachian tube, which leads to negative pressure and, sometimes, fluid in the ears. Bacteria and viruses can also migrate up the Eustachian tube, so that’s how noninfected fluid can become a true middle ear infection.”
What’s really the best way to unplug my ears after a flight?
“Do some of the things you might do on the plane, like yawn, chew gum or close your mouth, pinch your nose and try to blow out,” Dr. Czerny explained. “Doing this forces air up the Eustachian tube, which will let you equalize your pressure and relieve that full feeling. I tell a lot of my patients, if they have trouble with their ears or are traveling while sick, they can use a nasal or oral decongestant before or during the flight to try to prevent that congestion.”
My voice is always hoarse and it feels like there’s something in my throat. What gives?
“We see a lot of patients coming in with throat complaints, like a hoarse voice, difficulty swallowing, sore throat, and feeling like something is in their throat. Many times, the source of this is acid reflux where the acid comes up to the top of the esophagus and gets onto the voice box. It’s called laryngopharyngeal reflux, or LPR. LPR can occur even in people who have no heartburn or indigestion. It can present differently and sometimes be referred to as silent reflux. We can diagnose LPR with a specialized test in our office that helps determine which medication and dosage are likely to be effective.”