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Ask the Pediatrician

Dr. Jennifer Shu and her team of pediatricians answer your health questions.

Dr. Jennifer Shu

Question & Answer


At what age is it safe to use Q-tips to clean a child’s ears? How often should I use them?


By: Kirstin Abel Lee, M.D., FAAP 

Earwax is so gross, but so good. So, put the Q-tip down!

Earwax is normal, natural, and protective for your child's ear. It is supposed to be there. You may see dark brown wax, yellow wax, or no wax at all. The type and amount of wax in your child's ear is inherited. You cannot control it.

Teach your child to wash their ear canal with their little finger while they are in the bathtub or shower. It is fine to clean the outer ear with a washcloth. I know it is tempting to stick a cotton swab in there and get out a chunk of that gooey brown gunk, but it is better for your child to leave it alone.

There are several common complications of attempting to remove earwax:

  • Even with gentle use you can irritate the canal and make it more prone to infections such as otitis externa also known as "swimmer's ear."
  • If your child moves even a little you may accidentally perforate their eardrum. If that happens it is very painful, will bleed, and may require surgery for repair.
  • Your child will be more likely to stick a swab in their own ear which can end badly.
  • You may unintentionally create a plug of wax deep in the ear, known as earwax impaction. This can block the eardrum and be very difficult to remove.

If you are concerned that your child's earwax is a problem, discuss alternative removal methods with your pediatrician. Your pediatrician may recommend removal with ear drops that help soften the wax and/or ear irrigation.  

Additional Information:

About Dr. Lee:

Kirstin Abel Lee, M.D., FAAP is a pediatrician at St. Louis Children's Hospital and Washington University School of Medicine. She received her undergraduate education at the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, MD and is a graduate of the Washington University School of Medicine. Dr. Lee completed her residency at St. Louis Children's Hospital. She is board certified in Pediatrics and a fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics. Connect with Dr. Kirstin Lee on Facebook: ChildrensMomDocs and Google+.

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