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Man Gets Scary Skull Infection From Using Cotton Swabs to Clean Ears

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Mar. 15 2019, Updated 6:55 p.m. ET

It's the nightmare scenario your over-protective mom always warned you about: never clean your ears with cotton swabs.

The little sticks with bits of cotton attached to them don't really do much to actually clear your ear of wax. Sure, you might get a satisfying glob on the ear-end after you extricate it from your hearing cavity, but it isn't really doing much to clean out your ear and instead just compounds the wax in most cases.

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But that's not going to stop people from using them to clear whatever gunk they think they can get out of their ears with them, and people still do.

Like this 31-year-old British man who developed a bacterial infection by the name of necrotising otitis externa in the lining of his skull because he kept putting q-tips in his ears.

How it happened is the stuff of medical nightmares.

Upon closer inspection, doctors discovered that a shred of cotton wool was lodged in the man's ear and had become infected over time. That infection then traveled up into his skull where it spread to his brain lining and he was rushed to a nearby hospital to have the problem addressed.

That's not the worst part though: it turned out that the man was suffering from symptoms associated with the infection for nearly five years.

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He was treated for two really bad ear infections during the course of those five years, and other doctors missed what the real problem was: the infected piece of cotton that never went away.

Eventually, he had headaches that were so bad he'd end up vomiting and the skull infection resulted in short-term memory loss, including affecting his ability to remember people's names.

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A cat scan revealed that there were two large abscesses in his head that were filled with pus (gross) and they were right at the bottom of his skull, just pooling up there.

Symptoms of necrotising otitis externa are not pleasant: sufferers may experience a nasty aroma of putrid pus emanating from their ears. In some cases, the pus will ooze out from their ear canals in the form of a green infected sludge. All of this comes along with constant head pain, itchy ears, and hearing loss.

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The man in question who suffered this ear infection thankfully ended up making a full recovery and only required a bit of surgery to get that shard of cotton out of his head. That, coupled with a few weeks of antibiotics and bob's your uncle, he was good to go.

For those of you who still use cotton buds to clean your ears and are wondering what the best way to go about cleaning them is, stop what you're doing, and take a gander. And no, it doesn't involve that earwax cleanser Chuckie's dad invested in with Tommy's uncle.

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Although you can clean the areas surrounding your ear canals out with a q-tip, it should never go directly inside your ear canal. WebMD suggests that cleaning the inside of your ears is generally never a good idea because, as we all know, we're just going to end up compacting all the wax in there.

But what should you do if there is an actual wax build up?

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Over-the-counter wax removal kits do exist and do work if you feel like you've got a ton of wax in your ears that is in some dire need of extricating. You can also put some mineral oil, bay oil, or glycerin oil in your ears to help soften the wax that has built up. The wax should then naturally fall out of your ear canals on their own.

Washing the area around your ear canal with a warm paper towel will help as well.

Some home remedies call for hydrogen peroxide or ear candles: these flat out don't work and could just harm your ear further.

Of course, the best thing to do if you can is go to a doctor who can look inside your ears for you and make sure everything's OK. They're way better at extracting ear wax then any old cotton stick you buy from the toiletry aisle.

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