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Cotton swab leads to brain lining infection: BMJ Case Reports

A healthy 31-year-old man developed an infection in the lining of his brain because part of a cotton swab had unknowingly become lodged in his ear, according to a case report. 

The man arrived at an emergency room after having a seizure and collapsing. He had been complaining of left ear pain and ear discharge for the past 10 days, and also recent headaches, nausea and vomiting, as detailed in the peer-reviewed account by U.K. doctors in BMJ Case Reports. The man also reported suddenly forgetting names.

He’d been struggling with some left ear pain and hearing loss for the past five years, doctors discovered. His general practitioner had given him two different antibiotics to treat a “severe ear infection,” the report says.

It was indeed a severe infection — one that had progressed to the bone at the base of his skull and into the lining of his brain, the case report notes. Doctors decided to go into the man’s ear while he was under general anesthesia to see whether they could identify the cause. What they found was the tip of a cotton swab, encased in wax, discharge and “debris.” After the cotton swab was removed, the man began feeling better. 

At 10 weeks, the man reported no neurological problems and no residual ear symptoms. He’s also promised to no longer using cotton swabs to clean his ears, the case report says.  

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. Swabs can push earwax further into the ear canal and lead to temporary or permanent damage.

Follow Ashley May on Twitter: @AshleyMayTweets

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