Ever use a cotton swab to clean the inside of your ear? This seemingly harmless act, often used to remove excess earwax, is actually a dangerous method that medical professionals warn adamantly against.

According to the American Academy of Otolaryngology–Head and Neck Surgery (AAOHNS), one of the most common causes of hearing loss is wax blockage — which is most often caused by attempts to clean the ear using cotton swabs.

Why do ears need to be cleaned?

While earwax, also called cerumen, is a naturally occurring that substance with health benefits, too much earwax can actually lead to hearing loss. Audiologists recommend that people clean their ears with a damp, warm washcloth daily, during a bath or shower. The ears should be dried thoroughly afterward.

Sometimes, additional cleaning is needed, especially when individuals produce too much earwax. When too much earwax is produced, it needs to be cleaned in order to prevent cerumen impaction. According to the AAOHNS, cerumen impaction is characterized by symptoms such as:

  • Earache
  • Fullness of the ear
  • Sensation the ear is plugged
  • Tinnitus, ringing or other noises in the ear
  • Itching, odor or discharge
  • Coughing
  • Fever

How should I clean my ears?

To avoid these symptoms, it is important to follow safe protocols when cleaning the ears. Most cases of earwax blockage can be remedied using home treatments that soften the wax, but you should check with your hearing care professional to be sure.

The most effective at-home treatment is placing oil drops into the ear. Many household oils, such as mineral oil, baby oil and even olive oil can work to soften the hard, impacted earwax. Many drugstores also offer over-the-counter earwax removal kits that include oil or glycerin that also work to soften stubborn earwax.

Additionally, detergent drops such as hydrogen peroxide or carbamide peroxide, which are available at most pharmacies or drug stores, may also aid in earwax removal.

To use oil or detergent drops, tilt the head to one side and insert five to 10 drops of oil into the affected ear. Hold the position for at least 10 minutes before bringing the head upright. You may need to flush the excess oil and earwax out with warm water using a bulb syringe.

What if oil doesn’t work?

If the earwax is persistent or multiple rounds of oil do not help soften and remove earwax, you may need to see a hearing healthcare provider for professional removal.