Paramedics who arrived to help a young man who had collapsed one afternoon were totally mystified.
Only 31 years old, he had, without any warning, started having seizures and violent headaches. He was also forgetting people’s names — and then he passed out.
After being taken to A&E at Coventry Hospital, he was quickly sent for a brain scan which solved the riddle: two pus-filled abscesses on the lining of his brain.
The cause? A piece of cotton bud found buried deep inside his left ear.
The bud had led to necrotising otitis externa, a bacterial infection that starts in the ear canal before spreading to the skull, where it eats through the bone.
Facial nerves can also be affected, causing a stroke-like droop. Also known as malignant otitis externa, it is usually seen in the elderly, and others with a compromised immune system. While rare, it can be fatal.
The unnamed man, whose case was detailed in the journal BMJ Case Reports in March, did not know how long the cotton bud tip had been there. But he told his doctors he’d suffered ‘intermittent left ear pain and hearing loss’ for the past five years.
The cotton tip had to be removed under anaesthetic. The patient made a full recovery — but only after eight weeks of intravenous antibiotics. ‘Most importantly,’ wrote his doctors, ‘he is no longer using cotton buds’.
It’s an extreme example, but cotton buds can cause a range of problems, including infections, impacted earwax, perforated ear drums and tinnitus.
The NHS, GPs and even the manufacturers warn against digging inside the ear with cotton buds — but millions still do it.
Nearly two-thirds of us, in fact, according to a YouGov survey of 1,730 people in February — and we get through nearly two billion of the things a year.
‘A lot of people seem to think earwax is dirty, but it is natural and important,’ says Dr Roger Henderson, a GP from Dumfries, with more than 30 years experience of treating ear problems.
‘I’ve seen patients put pencils and even hair clips down their ear canal to clean it. It just damages the lining, and can be dangerous.’