Full disclosure: The following story might make you never want to clean your ears with cotton swabs ever again.
A 31-year-old man from England developed a severe, nearly fatal bacterial infection caused by a piece of a cotton swab that was stuck in his ear, Live Science reports. The life-threatening infection started in his ear canal and ended up spreading to the lining of his brain, after he’d struggled for years with ear pain and hearing-loss issues but not knowing the root of the problem. Prior to this, he’d been treated twice for infections in the same ear.
Although the infection didn’t enter the brain itself, it caused neurological symptoms, such as severe headaches and memory loss, which eventually led to his having a seizure and passing out. He was rushed to the emergency room, where Alexander Charlton, an ear, nose, and throat specialist at the University Hospital Coventry in England, was able to treat him. According to Charlton, who spoke with Live Science, the seizure was likely triggered by toxins or pressure on the brain from the infection.
After examining the man’s brain via a CT scan, the doctors diagnosed him with what’s known as necrotizing otitis externa, an infection in the soft tissue of the external auditory canal (the part of the ear canal from outside the ear to the drum). Charlton and his team located the aforementioned cotton swab during minor surgery. He tells Live Science it was surrounded by ear wax and debris, which means it had been there for… a while. Charlton also added that it likely contributed to the man’s reoccurring ear infections.
The man spent almost a week in the hospital and then needed two additional months of intravenous and oral antibiotics to treat the infection. Luckily, he didn’t suffer from any long-term hearing problems.
The doctors advised that he never use cotton swabs in his ears again. “They can only cause problems,” Charlton told Live Science. He added that cotton swabs have previously been linked to health scares such as ear infections, punctured eardrums, and impacted ear wax.
Other doctors agree, too. Eliot Danziger, a board-certified ENT-otolaryngologist at the Ear Nose and Throat Associates of New York, says cotton swabs are made for makeup, not ears. “They’re not safe to use because you’re pushing wax farther inside the ear so that it gets closer to the eardrum,” he explains, adding that putting pressure on the eardrum can be dangerous and lead to infections.
Let this be a lesson to think twice before swabbing your ears.
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