Beware of the Q-tip

By February 1, 2010 Hearing Loss

If you’re like many people, after your shower you reach for a Q-tip to dry your ears. But did you know that simple practice could cause the wax in your ears to get impacted? It can. And that’s why Dr. Ted Benke of Benke Ear, Nose & Throat Clinic says beware of the Q-tip.

“Somewhere along the way, ear wax has gotten a bad rap,” Benke said. “Ear wax in and of itself is not a bad thing. It is actually normal and healthy—it’s a germ fighter and protects your ear canal.”

“The problem is that people who use Q-tips get rid of all that wax and that creates a dry flaky ear and often times, the ear will begin to weep from over use of the Q-tip. That, in turn, makes it more susceptible to ear canal infections.”

He said as an otolaryngologist or ENT physician, he regularly removes ear wax from patients who have had it impacted, predominately from overuse of Q-tips.

“Ear wax is not formed in the deep part of the ear canal near the eardrum, but in the outer third of the ear canal,” he said. “So when a patient has wax blockage against the eardrum, it’s often because he has been probing the ear with things like Q-tips, bobby pins, or twisted napkin corners, and these things only push the wax in deeper.”

If that occurs, he said, it’s called cerumen impaction, and it may cause an earache or a feeling of fullness in the ear or a sensation that the ear is plugged. He said a patient may experience tinnitus, ringing or noise in the ear or itching, odor or discharge.

“Sometimes, a patient comes in complaining that he can’t hear as well as he used to,” he said. “Many times we find that the reason is as simple as ear wax.”

Benke said some techniques include using a syringe to irrigate the ear, but he said the best course of treatment is to remove it with direct visualization under microscopic guidance and a gentle suction, as seen in the picture above.

“If a patient has really hard ear wax that’s severely impacted, I’ll give them carbamide, which is an oily type of peroxide to use at night, and peroxide to use in the morning to clean the ear. Then they’ll come back in a week and we’ll take it out using microscopic guidance. It’s virtually painless.”

Benke said he uses the technique with patients of all ages.

“Last week I removed ear wax from a 99-year old woman. She had complained to her primary care physician about having itchy ears and he referred her to me. The culprit—ear wax.”

In addition to ear wax, Benke has also removed other things from patients’ ears.

“I’ve removed all kinds of foreign objects from the ear canal. I’ve taken out ticks, erasers, rocks, seeds, beans, little toys, and even silly putty one time. With infants and children, we let them sit in their mom’s lap and use a headlight under direct vision and scoop it out with a curette scooper.”

Benke said using other techniques, like the syringe, may simply flush part of an object out, leaving other parts inside the ear.

“That’s why microscopic guidance with direct visualization is the most effective treatment,” he said. With it, we not only remove ear wax, but all kinds of stuff that people put in their ears.”

Benke ENT also offers audiology services, diagnostic hearing tests, a complete line of hearing aids and evaluation and treatment for vertigo.

For more information or an appointment, contact his office at 817-641-3750.