Why It Feels So Damn Good To Stick A Q-Tip In Your Ear
It’s the constant refrain of ear doctors everywhere: Never stick something smaller than your elbow inside your ear.
That pretty much prohibits jabbing Q-tips, toothpicks, hair pins, or car keys in your ears. The problem? Doing so feels pretty damn fantastic.
Why Cleaning Your Ears Feels Amazing
There are actually several reasons why we’re drawn to digging around in our ears.
Some people feel the urge clean them out and remove the gunk they feel is clogging them up. “A lot of people have a chronic feeling that their ears are irritated or itchy, and feel that a Q-tip relieves that feeling,” says Benjamin Tweel, M.D., an assistant professor of otolaryngology at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. “In that sense, it’s like scratching an itch.”
It also does just feel really, really good. That could be because the ear—thought to be an erogenous zone—has a complex system of nerves and nerve endings.
“People can have referred sensations from other parts of the body,” says Seth Pross, M.D., an otolaryngologist at Johns Hopkins Medicine. “The classic example is that people have something in their ear, and it feels like something is in their throat.”
The Vagus nerve—a branchlike structure that runs from your brain to your butt—can be stimulated via the ear, Dr. Pross says. This may play a small role in that pleasurable sensation you feel from the Q-tip, he says. And you may feel it anywhere the nerve impacts, including your heart, belly, and even reproductive areas. (Here are 4 body parts she wishes you’d touch.)
Another possibility? Your ear is also an area that you’re normally not used to getting touched, says Dr. Tweel. “In some ways, it’s probably like an armpit that is ticklish because people don't touch that area too often. Some people find that pleasurable.”
Why You Should Never Stick a Q-Tip In Your Ears
Here’s the problem: While you might feel good digging away, the habit can dry your ear out and cause minor trauma like abrasions. Those small injuries can make it feel like something is in your ear. And that can spark you to dig around even more, which, of course, leaves you vulnerable to more damage. And that perpetuates the cycle.
Plus, you’re not really cleaning your ears at all. That’s because your ears are actually self-cleaning organs, says Dr. Tweel.
And earwax—the very substance you’re intent on digging out—is an important part of that self-cleaning mechanism. “It has antibacterial properties to prevent ear infections,” Dr. Pross explains. “It traps dirt, dust, even insects, and it can bring all of those dirty things outside the ear canal over time.
That means there isn’t really any cleaning left for you to do. (Here’s how to get rid of ear hair.)
Plus, sticking a Q-tip in your ear is like putting a plunger in the toilet: “The diameter of a Q-tip is pretty close to diameter of the ear canal,” says Dr. Pross.
So when you shove it in there, you can’t actually remove the wax. “You’re basically just pushing the wax deeper in, where it can become impacted, painful, or lead to an ear infection,” Dr. Pross says.
Shoving the Q-tip inside can also potentially rupture your eardrum or scratch the skin of ear canal, which could lead to bleeding or infection, says Dr. Tweel.
“There are people who have had permanent ear damage to their hearing bones or ear drums because of Q tips going in too far,” he says.
How to Safely Care For Your Ears
Let your ears clean themselves on their own—sans Q-tips. If you feel like your ears are super grungy, you can play some kind of recon. Just limit it to the outer area.
“Put a tissue over your finger tip to clean the outer part of ear,” suggests Dr. Tweel.
You could also try using a few drops of mineral oil once a week to soften the earwax if you feel like you have too much earwax or are blocked up. These drops, like Debrox, allow the wax to naturally move out of the ear canal, says Dr. Pross.
If the blocked feeling in your ear it doesn’t go away on its own or with earwax drops in a day or two, see your doctor, says Dr. Tweel.
“Hearing loss can sometimes show up as feeling like your ear is blocked,” he says.
Your doctor may perform hearing tests to check your hearing. But in the cases where you are making too much wax that your ear can’t clean out itself, your doctor may remove the wax for you. This can be done by irrigating the ear to gently flush out the wax, says Dr. Pross. Or, your doctor may examine your ear under a microscope and use very fine instruments to scoop the wax out.