Cotton Buds Send Thousands of Kids to Hospital Every Year

By George Dvorsky on at

New research from Nationwide Children’s Hospital shows that around 12,500 kids are treated in US hospital emergency departments each year for injuries caused by cotton buds. That’s about 34 each day. In most cases, the swabs were used for cleaning, but as this study shows, it’s simply not worth the risks. Thankfully, there are safer ways to get rid of that gunk in your ear holes.

“The two biggest misconceptions I hear as an [ear specialist] are that the ear canals need to be cleaned in the home setting, and that cotton tip applicators should be used to clean them; both of those are incorrect,” said Kris Jatana, MD, senior author of the study from NCH’s Department of Pediatric Otolaryngology, in a statement. “The ear canals are usually self-cleaning. Using cotton tip applicators to clean the ear canal not only pushes wax closer to the ear drum, but there is a significant risk of causing minor to severe injury to the ear.”

No doubt. As Jatana’s new study shows, cotton tip applicators are bad news — especially when children are involved. Using National Electronic Injury Surveillance System (NEISS) data collected from 1990 to 2010, her team documented over 263,000 cases in which kids under the age of 18 were treated in a US hospital emergency department for injuries caused by a cotton swab. In nearly three-quarters of those cases, injuries were sustained during attempts to clean the ear. In the remaining cases, the injuries were caused by playing with the applicators (10 percent) or during falls when kids had the applicators in their ear (9 percent). This research now appears in The Journal of Paediatrics.

Accidents typically occurred when kids were using the cotton swabs themselves, accounting for 77 percent of all cases. Parents were responsible for another 16 percent of the ER visits, while sibling swabbing accounted for the remaining six percent. Two-thirds of patients were younger than eight years of age, and 40 percent were younger than three.

In terms of the injuries sustained, children were treated for foreign body sensation (the feeling that something’s inside the ear), perforated ear drums, and soft tissue injuries. In the vast majority of cases, patients were treated and released. But an unlucky few experienced damage to their ear drum, hearing bones, or inner ear that led to dizziness, problems with balance, and irreversible hearing loss.

“While the number of overall injuries from cotton tip applicators did decrease during the 21 years we looked at in our study, it is still unacceptably high,” said Jatana. “These products may seem harmless, but this study shows how important it is that they not be used to clean ears.” In fact, a set of guidelines published by the American Academy of Otolaryngology—Head and Neck Surgery Foundation earlier this year said the exact same thing.

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