It’s been called the most ignored warning label ever printed.
Check any box of cotton swabs and you’ll find this stern message: Do not put swab in ear canal. But most of us never even think twice about using these disposable swabs to clean the wax out of our ears.
Unless, that is, you’ve lived through the kind of horrifying experience one unnamed 31-year-old man featured in the British Medical Journal Case Reports did.
The patient had been suffering from discharge and pain in his left ear for more than a week, before headaches, nausea, and vomiting set in.
His doctor assumed it was a nasty ear infection, and prescribed a course of antibiotics.
But when the man began forgetting names, feeling confused, and became fatigued, he checked in to a local hospital. Doctors there sussed out the fact that the patient had actually been living with ear pain and hearing loss for several years.
CT and MRI scans identified the cause of the man’s trouble: infected abscesses in his skull full of dangerous bacteria. A surgery to treat the infection found an even bigger surprise: part of a cotton swab stuck deep inside the man’s ear canal.
The combination of the infection (called necrotizing external otitis) and inflammation caused by the cotton swab piece had caused the man to suffer a seizure.
If left untreated, the infection itself could have traveled to the base of his skull and killed him.
After treatment, the patient has made a full recovery, and the case study’s authors celebrated that he "is no longer using cotton buds to clean his ears!"
"The use of cotton buds inside ears is common and has long been recognized to cause several complications including trauma, tympanic membrane perforation, impacted earwax, infection and retention of the cotton bud," they wrote.
And if you think this could never happen to you, you’re sorely mistaken. According to one study, 34 people are treated for cotton swab injuries in U.S. hospitals every day.
Earwax, also known as cerumen, is created by our bodies to clean the ear canal and protect it from bacteria. Our bodies just produce too much of it sometimes.
Experts warn that swabbing at ear wax can actually bury it deeper in your ear canal. So next time, reach for a washcloth to wipe away your ear gunk instead.