Cleaning Your Kid’s Ears: Are Q-Tips Safe?

A friend once told me with great disdain, while watching me wiggle a cotton swab deep in my ear canal with great satisfaction, “I never use Q-tips to clean out my ears.” Apparently a little girl with Q-tipdoctor once told him never to put anything smaller than his elbow into his ear, and he took these words as gospel.

Do you ever have the feeling when someone tells you some great truth, a law of the universe that you’ve been breaking for years in ignorance, that it’s remarkable that you have survived this long, having missed out on some basic manual on life along the way? I often wonder if the parents in my practice feel this way as I spout my wisdom on general health issues, and they look chagrined at having broken the rules with their child. The good news is, it’s hard to break your child. ..especially with things like the management of ear wax.

So what are the rules of proper ear hygiene? Though I think that my friend’s doctor was a bit dramatic, I do agree that for the most part, cotton swabs do more harm than good for children’s ears.

Here’s the lowdown.

Ear wax (otherwise known as cerumen) is icky, and sometimes smells quite foul, but it actually serves several important functions. It is created in the outer half of the ear canal, where it serves to lubricate the skin of the ear canal, and prevents flaking and itching. It also has antibacterial properties and protects the skin of the ear from infections like otitis externa, commonly known as swimmer’s ear.

Ear wax almost always comes out of the ear on its own accord. There are small hairs, called cilia, lining the outer half of the ear canal which act as a conveyor belt, pushing the old wax out as the new wax is formed. And so under most circumstances, ears clean themselves.

What is the harm of a little friendly assistance? There are several potential problems caused by good intentions. Often, especially in children’s small ear canals, using a cotton swab actually pushes the wax deeper into the canal, to the far recesses where there are no hairs to help remove it. In children who make a thick, moist wax, their ears often become so clogged with wax that their hearing becomes dulled, which can impact speech development in younger kids and learning and behavior in older kids.

And then there are those over-eager toddlers who wiggle a little too hard and deep and puncture their eardrum. This common injury usually heals very well, but sometimes the tiny bones that are essential for proper hearing are damaged or the membrane fails to heal and an innocent cleaning exercise can have profound impact on the life of a child.

In the end, though I was chagrined myself when I first heard this advice, I too now recommend avoiding q-tips or cotton-tipped swabs for ear hygiene.

Tips for Parents:

  • The secret to clean ears is to use a wash cloth only on the outer, visible part of the ear to clean the wax as it naturally comes out. Internal cleaning is not necessary, and may be harmful.
  • If you are concerned about your child’s hearing, visit your doctor to see if they have ears plugged with wax.
  • Never allow your children to play with cotton swabs or place anything else (carrots included) in their ears.
  • Itchy ears are often caused by over-zealous cleaning habits. A few drops of mineral oil can help soothe them while you wait for the ear’s natural lubricant to return.

Keeping Your Food Allergic Child Safe At The Grocery Store

toddler girl sit in shopping cart in supermarketWhen someone becomes a food allergic parent, this changes every single aspect of your daily routine. Allergy triggers are everywhere and must be avoided as much as possible. This means preparing ahead of time to ensure minimal risk of exposure. This may also mean that your new routines will be forced to change as your allergic child grows and goes through new stages of their childhood. One of the trickiest, most nerve-wracking stages can be the years that your child is touching everything to seek out their new environment. How does a parent keep their child safe, allow them to process their newest childhood developmental stage but also be able to tackle a simple chore such as going to the food store? Luckily, it can be done.

When my son was diagnosed with multiple food allergies, going food shopping became a new area of terror for me. We were surrounded by food and the worst part- most of his high allergy triggers were placed in open barrels throughout the store where anyone could touch them. We survived with little or no injury and I wanted to share my tips to make sure everyone else does the same. Food shopping for food allergy menus is stressful enough so let me help you focus your energy in other areas.

Always Have Medications

I cannot repeat this enough- ALWAYS have any necessary medications with you, no matter where you go. Always have two epinephrine auto injectors, antihistamine, and asthma inhalers- anything that you may need at a moment’s notice. Many people assume that they can avoid allergic triggers but there is no definite way of telling what, when or where an allergic reaction can happen.  Being prepared means always being one step ahead of a possibly fatal incident. Your child’s life is worth so much more than not taking 20 extra seconds to pack these items up with your belongings for your venture out.

Stress Doesn’t Help Your Child

I know this may seem like a given but it’s a fact; the more stress you show your child, the more they see it, feel it and react to it. The calmer you are in the way you approach situations, the calmer your child will also be. Not only does this teach your child to go into multiple situations with a more focused way of thinking but it will show your child to always begin in a more positive frame of mind. Stress can also trigger some people’s allergies so it is best avoided as much as possible. Not to mention anyone who is stressed too often does not treat their immune system to function as optimally as it should. Less stress within a child’s behavior is better health for the child and better health for parents.

Use Wipes

We have been deemed as the “germophobe” generation – use it to keep your child safe. Many food stores offer free sanitizing wipes at the entrance, use them. This may not remove all traces of possible allergens from the previous person who used your shopping cart but it will be better than risking a simple touch of a handle bar that was just grabbed with a handful of a food. Children eat all of the time and children touch everything all of the time- this includes your shopping cart. If you prefer a gentler wipe due to chemical or ingredients, pack your own. There are natural brands such as Water Wipes or you can even bring a bag that has your own wet wash cloth with a gentle soap on it.

Cover Everything

As mentioned before- children touch everything. When they are teething, they also taste, lick, bite and try to put everything in their mouth as well. For a child with food allergies, a shopping cart can be a disaster waiting to happen in the blink of an eye. One of the best items I ever found was a reusable shopping cart seat cover. This is a cloth item that you can bring with you and fits most sizes of shopping cart seats. There are multiple types available but I recommend one such as Infantino because:

  1. Walker -shoppingcartcoverYou want a seat cover that will completely cover the entire shopping cart seat, including the handle bars.
  2. You want something that is thicker and more padded to keep your child comfortable (some products are very thin and less padding causes a cranky child).
  3. Your cart cover should include its own seat belt because those also go into your child’s mouth, which is another cross-contamination threat.
  4. Other options to look for are attachable sippy cups or areas to attach your child’s snack container, teething ring or pacifier. All of these items will fall on the floor if not attached and this poses another allergy threat as well as an unhappy child who looks to these for comfort.

Travel With Food

The best way to entertain my child and keep him seated so I could get my shopping done was (plain and simple) food. I always brought safe snacks for him to have. I even made an effort  during our food shopping trips to see what other children were eating or what types of samples the store was giving out. If my child wanted to try it because he saw it, I would bring a similar food item so that he felt like he was also getting to try new foods like the other kids in the store.

It’s never about giving in to your child- it is about safety and planning out your routine as effectively as possible. Having a child with food allergies should never seem like something that cannot be a part of whatever you and your family do- there is always a way to do anything, you just need to find a new way to do it.