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This Bedtime Routine Injures Thousands of Kids Every Year

Photograph by Twenty20

There's a common bed and bathtime routine that, despite warnings from pediatricians and even product labeling, is still sending thousands of kids to the emergency room every year—at about 34 children per day.

Worse, waiting to seek treatment can cause serious permanent damage such as balance problems, facial nerve paralysis, hearing loss and dizziness, researchers say.

That routine habit that might seem harmless? Cleaning your kid's ears with cotton swabs. And if it's not you who's doing it, it may be that your kids got their hands on some cotton swabs and decided to put them in their ears themselves because they've seen you do it. But the slightest wrong angle or too much pressure can have serious consequences, according to a study published in the journal Pediatrics.

About two out of three patients were younger than 8, and children younger than 3 years old accounting for 40 percent of all injuries. Cotton swabs can actually cause serious injury by either pushing ear wax or other debris deeper into the ear canal or puncturing the ear drum. The most common injury among children under the age of 8 is a perforated ear drum.

Although ear wax is normal and actually protects the ear, studies from the American Academy of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery Foundation have shown that 90 percent of people still think they should regularly clean their own ears or their kids' ears. However, the most common reason kids end up in the ER is an obstruction of the ear canal or a perforated ear drum, according to an analysis of data from the National Electronic Injury Surveillance System.

When it comes to how the injury happens, most occur while cleaning their ears, but a significant amount of kids—about 20 percent—get hurt playing with cotton swabs or falling while they have a swab in their ear. Most of these injuries happen when the kids are in control of the cotton swabs themselves, but parents are also responsible for accidental injuries about 16 percent of the time.

Your best best? Ditch the Q-tips for ear cleaning because ears are self-cleaning. And if you must, you can use a regular cotton ball to swab the outer part of the ear canal. But you should definitely listen to your pediatrician about the best ways to keep your kids' ears clean so you can avoid ending up in the ER.

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