The Hard and Soft Truth About the Dangers of Cotton Swabs

You shouldn’t put things in your ears. Of course you would never put a pen, a knitting needle or even a chopstick in your ear. Those could all be dangerous. But what about a soft cotton swab? You just use them to clean out your ear after a shower; they were practically made for this. Surely, cotton swabs are fine.

cotton swabs can cause eardrum perforation

I really hate to be the bearer of bad news (I see how your Tucson audiologist feels), but they are in fact dangerous (and don’t call me Shirley). Placing a cotton swab in your ear is one of the most common causes of a perforated eardrum.

Your Eardrum

Your eardrum is the thin membrane that separates your outer ear from the middle ear. The eardrum is a vital part of the hearing process. Its primary role is to convert the sound waves that enter the ear into vibrations that then move through the rest of the ear and eventually are transformed into electrical signals that are sent to the brain. In addition to aiding in the hearing process, your eardrum is responsible for preventing pieces of debris, bacteria and water from entering the middle ear, which can lead to infections.


When a cotton swab is placed in the ear, even if it’s placed gently, the pressure can cause the eardrum to rupture. This can result in a sudden sharp pain in the ear, drainage from the ear (either clear or bloody), a buzzing sound and even hearing loss.

Damage to Your Eardrum

If you experience these symptoms, you may have ripped your eardrum. You should visit your Tucson audiologist as soon as possible. Once there, your audiologist will look in your ear with an otoscope, a lighted instrument, for visible signs of damage. Your audiologist may also perform a simple hearing test to determine if you are suffering from hearing loss. While this may seem like a lot of damage caused by a simple cotton swab, most of these symptoms are temporary.


A perforated eardrum typically heals on its own and does not require treatment. To prevent an infection your Tucson audiologist may prescribe you antibiotics; over-the-counter medication may be suggested to manage the pain. In the off chance your eardrum does not heal on its own, or the hole is too large, surgery may be needed. This is done in a simple outpatient surgery that repairs the hole with a piece of your own tissue.


Next time you get out of the shower and reach for the cotton swab, stop! Think about the consequences. The shower you just took washed out any debris or earwax that was trapped in your ear. If you are worried that without the use of a cotton swab your ears won’t get as clean, contact your local Tucson audiologist for tips and suggestions.

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Arizona Hearing Specialists
Arizona Hearing Specialists