What It Means If You Cough When Using A Q-Tip To Clean Your Ears

Despite what well-meaning doctors tell us, not all of us avoid putting things in our ears. From Q-tips to clean out your ears, fingers that idly poke around, and headphones to listen to music, a lot of foreign objects make their way into your ears. 

Have you ever coughed when you inserted a Q-tip into your ear? This is called the Arnold's ear-cough reflex, according to IFL Science. The name comes from the 19th-century German professor of anatomy and physiology, Friedrich Arnold, who gave the nerve responsible for the cough reflex its title — the Arnold's nerve. The Arnold's nerve is an auricular branch of the vagus nerve, something you may have already heard of. 

The vagus nerve, which is part of your parasympathetic nervous system, is responsible for a variety of functions, inclusive of communication between your brain, digestive system, heart, and immune system, per Cleveland Clinic. The nerve runs the length from your brain, down your face and throat to your digestive system. Which brings us back to the q-tip-induced cough reflex. According to radiology trainee, Jack Gao (via Mr. Radiologist) stimulating the Arnold's nerve, which is right inside your ear canal, could make some people cough because of a misfiring of signals that reach the vagus nerve which is connected to your throat. "Signals from the ear canal are transmitted down Arnold's nerve, they bypass the brain, and they travel down to the muscles that involve coughing," Gao explained.

Your throat and ears are connected

If you haven't guessed already, your throat and ears are connected. If a Q-tip in your ear can make you cough because it stimulates a nerve in your throat, the reverse is also true, added otolaryngologist at NYU Langone Health, Dr. Erich Voigt (via IFL Science). 

"An irritation in the throat such as a viral ulcer or cancerous tumor may be felt as pain in the ear because the glossopharyngeal nerve will send those sensations back to the brain, but the brain does not know where the sensation came from and interprets this as ear pain," explained Dr. Voigt who added that he's seen this happen in his own practice with patients. 

It is also interesting to note that not everyone might have this involuntary cough reflex. According to a 2017 study published in the journal Chest, Arnold's ear-cough reflex might be more prevalent in those with chronic cough symptoms. Discussing Q-tips in ears won't be complete without going into the dangers of this practice. You may have heard them before, but here's a refresher. 

Why you shouldn't be inserting a q-tip in your ear

Even if some people claim to not have any problem with using them and others complain of ear pain after doing so, it's recommended to think twice before using Q-tips to clean your ears. 

From puncturing your eardrum, accidentally pushing wax from the ear canal to the drum, and hearing problems like tinnitus, to ear infections caused by sending outside germs into your ears, there's a lot that can happen when you use Q-tips to clean your ears, according to otolaryngology physician, Dr. Christopher Hilton (via Health Partners). If these aren't enough of a deterrent, you could also cause major trauma to your eardrums if you simply forget that you have a q-tip in there, per ear, nose, and throat (ENT) specialist at Mass Eye and Ear in Boston, Dr. Elliott Kozin (per Self). "There are true stories of individuals forgetting that they have a cotton swab in their ear and then accidentally brushing the side of their head, resulting in major trauma to the ear," explained Dr. Kozin. (Ouch). 

Your ears are self-cleaning by nature but if and when you do feel the need to clean them, opt for a moistened cotton ball, washcloth, or ear cleaning drops instead. Or better yet, get the help of a health professional.