Disease & Illness

This Man Got A Skull Infection After Cleaning His Ear With A Q-Tip

This is scary. If you clean your ears with Q-tips you'll want to read this.

After stepping out of the shower, the first thing a lot of people do after drying themselves off is clean their ears with Q-tips.

Despite the ubiquity of the practice, you may have heard it’s not such a great idea. Even though you may feel that you’re “cleaning” out the wax in your ears with a cotton swab, it can actually push the wax down farther into your ear canal, risking impaction.

Using a cotton swab in your ear can also lead to more serious problems. Recently, a 31-year-old man in England used a Q-tip in his ear and the tip got stuck, unbeknownst to him, which caused a severe bacterial infection to develop. Eventually, according to the BMJ Case Reports’ write-up about this case, the infection spread into the bone at the base of his skull and into the lining of the brain known as the meninges. This caused various neurological symptoms, including a seizure.


The man, who remains unidentified, had been experiencing ear pain, hearing loss and recurrent infections for years leading up to the seizure. He also dealt with several other more concerning symptoms, like severe headaches, despite that he was otherwise healthy. A brain scan finally revealed two infected areas at the base of his skull near his left ear canal.

He underwent exploratory surgery, where doctors located the tip of the swab, which doctors believe had been there for some time and was likely the cause of his ongoing symptoms. He recovered in the hospital for close to a week and received intravenous and oral antibiotics for two months. Luckily, all his neurological and hearing problems resolved themselves.

Cotton Swabs - Bottom
Flickr | JefferyTurner

“It’s not a bad thing to have wax in your ears,” Dr. Seth Schwartz, chairman of the guideline update group for the American Academy of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery, told CNN in 2017. “Everybody does and should. It’s more of an issue when it becomes too much.”

If that’s the case, and you feel that wax buildup is impacting your hearing or causing pain, visit your doctor. When in doubt, you can clear things up with the complete guidelines from the academy, which were updated in 2017. As a general rule, you should never put anything smaller than your elbow in your ear.


Wondering what to do with all those cotton swabs you own if you’re not using them to clean your ears? Here’s a list of 11 ways to use cotton swabs around the house.