Q-tips land 12,500 children in the hospital every year—roughly 34 kids per day—according to new research published in Journal of Pediatrics. While a majority of the injuries came from kids jabbing Q-tips against their own eardrums, parents hell-bent on cleaning out their toddlers’ ears were responsible for nearly 16 percent of these ER visits.
Perhaps when Leo Gerstenzang invented Q-tips back in 1923 after watching his wife clean their baby’s ears with a toothpick and cotton, the toothpick part should’ve clued us in.“The two biggest misconceptions I hear as an otolaryngologist are that the ear canals need to be cleaned in the home setting, and that cotton tip applicators should be used to clean them” said Dr. Kris Jatana, an otolaryngologist at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Ohio and coauthor on the study, in a statement. “Both of those are incorrect.”
For the study, Jatana and his team collected data from the National Electronic Injury Surveillance System, and found that 263,338 children were treated in the ER for “cotton-tip applicator” injuries between 1990 and 2010. Nearly three-quarters of these injuries were happened while trying to clean the ear (the remaining injuries were from messing around with Q-tips recreationally, as one does). While most of the kids (76.9 percent) caused their own injuries, parents were responsible in 15.8 percent of cases, while siblings were responsible 6.2 percent of the time.
The results broadly suggest that Q-tip injuries are on the decline, but Jatana stresses that these preventable injuries are still far too common. “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,” Dr. Jatana noted. “These products may seem harmless, but this study shows how important it is that they not be used to clean ears.”
Indeed, earlier this year the American Academy of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery updated their guidelines to clarify that ears are self-cleaning and that people shouldn’t put anything smaller than an elbow in there (good luck pulling that off without a buddy). “There is an inclination for people to want to clean their ears because they believe earwax is an indication of uncleanliness,” Dr. Seth R. Schwartz, chair of the guideline update group, said in a press release. “This misinformation leads to unsafe ear health habits.” In other words, wax on.