In fact, this household staple sends thousands of kids to the ER every year.

By Marisa Cohen
Updated February 13, 2018
Each product we feature has been independently selected and reviewed by our editorial team. If you make a purchase using the links included, we may earn commission.
Girl sticking cotton swab in ear
Credit: kwanchaichaiudom/Getty Images

You already know to keep medications out of reach of your kids, but did you know that something as innocent-looking as a cotton swab is responsible for sending an average of 12,500 kids to emergency rooms in the U.S. every year?

While the vast majority of these kids are treated and released, injuries from sticking a cotton swab too deep into your ear canal can cause bleeding, dizziness, tympanic membrane perforation, and even hearing loss—not to mention a scary afternoon sitting in the ER waiting to be treated. And despite years of warnings on the boxes (plus, a memorable zinger from Chandler on Friends, who told a confused Joey “You have to stop the Q-Tip when there’s resistance!”), parents continue to use the swabs to try to clean wax out of their kids’ ears. That’s a major no-no, according to the authors of a study in the Journal of Pediatrics that looked at the rates and causes of ER visits due to cotton-swab use.

“There is a misconception among the general public that the ear canal requires regular cleaning and that cotton-tip applicators are good products for that purpose,” the researchers wrote. “Contrary to public belief, cerelum [that’s the fancy word for ear wax] is beneficial for the ear, and the ear has a natural mechanism for self-cleaning.” In fact, other studies have shown that by trying to scoop ear wax out with a swab, you can actually push it down further down. The wax, while it seems kinda gross and annoying, has the important function of moisturizing the ear canal and blocking out dirt and germs. (If your child has such a major buildup of wax that he’s having hearing problems, talk to your pediatrician, who can remove it safely.)

Some interesting stats the researchers dug up: The peak age for this type of injury was 2, and the vast majority of injuries were caused by the child holding the swab him or herself. While 73 percent of the injuries were caused during attempts to clean the ear, around 10 percent happened while playing with swabs, and another 9 percent happened when the child fell, tripped, or ran into someone while simultaneously sticking the swab in the ear.

So keep those swabs around for dotting on makeup, cleaning your computer keyboard, or finessing your kid’s art projects, but keep them safely out of your kids hands—and ears.