Ear, nose, and Throat Care for Your Child #1: Q-tip or Not to Q-tip

About Dr. Lorraine Williams

Lorraine M. Williams, M.D., M.P.H., F.A.C.S. is the Director of the Pediatric division of OHNI, as well as a member of the Pediatric Otolaryngology panel and Pediatric Surgical Services at Cedars Sinai Medical Center.

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You may have heard the old adage that you should not put anything in your ears that is smaller than your elbows. But why shouldn’t we use Q-tips? After all, isn’t cleaning your ears what Q-tips are made for? Is it true then that you should not use Q-tips to clean your ears?

Pediatric ENT Los Angeles
Dr. Lorraine Smith, Pediatric ENT in Los Angeles

Dr. Lorraine M. Smith, Director of Pediatric Otolaryngology at the Osborne Head and Neck Institute instructs her patient’s parents not to use Q-tips in their children’s ears. This is a fact that this is stated on the product box. Not only do Q-tips not clean the wax in your ears, they can often push it deeper into the canal causing further wax buildup, pain, itching and hearing loss. In some cases, they may also cause an irritation of the skin leading to an external ear infection that requires antibiotic therapy. Both of these cases would require care by an Ear, Nose and Throat (ENT) specialist.

So how should we clean our ears? What about the child that has a chronic problem with ear wax buildup?

It turns out that in most cases there is no need for routine cleaning of the ear canal. After all, it is a self-cleaning structure that pushes the wax out on its own. However, in some kids with narrow ear canals or in others where the wax is very dry, children may develop chronic wax buildup or impaction. For these cases, Dr. Smith suggests using an over the counter ear-wax removing solution such as Debrox. Debrox contains a diluted form of hydrogen peroxide and can be used safely in the ears for short periods of time as long as there are no cuts or ear drainage.

She recommends applying 4 drops into the ear canal and then pushing on the front of the ear canal, about 30 minutes before bath-time as the wax will then be softened and washed out of the canal. This may be done once or twice a week for kids with chronic wax issues. This regimen seems to work for most, however, some cases may be challenging and they require a physician to clean the ear canals out. Dr. Smith also emphasizes that children with PET or ventilation tubes may not use Debrox or any other water based solutions in the ear canal without the advice of their physician.

A message from Dr. Lorraine M. Smith, Director of Pediatric Otolaryngology at the Osborne Head and Neck Institute

“I know that it is tempting to use Q-tips in order to clean your child’s ears. However, in my 10 years of experience as a pediatric ENT surgeon, I have seen far more problems associated with Q-tip use in the ear than I have seen benefits. The ear canal is an amazing structure that can clean itself. If there is a problem with this mechanism and wax buildup is an issue then it should be seen and treated by a physician to avoid causing any harm to such an important sensory organ.”

To learn more about Dr. Lorraine Smith or pediatric ear care, visit: http://www.ohni.org/