Man suffers brain lining infection after cleaning ear with cotton swab

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A man was rushed to hospital with a brain infection five years after part of a cotton swab became lodged in his ear.

An unusual case study in a British medical journal reported how a normally healthy 31-year-old was brought to an emergency department in Coventry, England, after collapsing and suffering seizures.

The man had suffered ear pain and discharge on his left side in the previous ten days, progressing to headaches, nausea and vomiting in the days before he was hospitalized.

“He had received two different courses of oral antibiotics from his general practitioner for a ‘severe ear infection’ and had a background of intermittent left ear pain and hearing loss for the past five years,” case report authors wrote in BMJ Journals, formerly The British Medical Journal, on March 6.

“He also admitted to being more forgetful of names in recent days.”

The man was diagnosed with necrotising otitis externa (NOE), an infection originating in the soft tissues of the external auditory canal spreading to the surrounding bone.

Under anesthetic, doctors identified a foreign body in his ear canal, a cotton swab surrounded by wax, which they removed.

“At ten weeks, the patient remained well, with no neurological deficit and no residual ear symptoms, and CT (computed tomography) demonstrated complete resolution of the intracranial abscesses,” the report authors wrote.

“At the completion of his course of antibiotics, the patient remained systemically well with no neurological deficit and no residual ear symptoms.

“Most importantly, he is no longer using cotton buds to clean his ears.”

The American Academy of Otolaryngology discourages using cotton swabs, fingers or any other tool to remove earwax, saying they could actually do more harm than good.

“The present case further reiterates the dangers of cotton bud use, and the importance of foreign body removal if identified in the external auditory canal,” the authors wrote.

“The use of cotton buds inside ears is common and has long been recognised to cause several complications including trauma, tympanic membrane perforation, impacted earwax, infection and retention of the cotton bud,” the authors wrote.

Q-tips come with a warning never to use in the ear.

The Canadian Society of Otolaryngology – Head and Neck Surgery told CTVNews.ca that it does not have a formal position on cotton swab use.

“However, as a matter of practice, otolaryngologist-head and neck surgeons counsel patients never to to place any foreign bodies in the ear unless at the direction of their physician,” the society told CTVNews.ca.

“Foreign bodies in the ear, including cotton tipped applicators, carry with them a risk of trauma, hearing loss and infection.”