Cotton swabs can pose serious health risk: coroner
Published Tuesday, February 5, 2008 10:22PM EST
A Quebec coroner is raising a red flag about the cotton swab, following the death of a man who used the common bathroom product to clean his ears.
Daniel St-Pierre, 43, died March 25, 2007 in Montreal after developing meningitis-induced intracranial complications caused by an ear infection.
In a report, coroner Jacques Ramsay said St-Pierre's death is further proof that people still use swabs inside their ears -- despite warnings on the package that while it's acceptable to "swab gently around the outer ear," the swab should "not enter the ear canal."
The coroner says the best way to clean an ear is with a pinky.
Ramsay said St-Pierre likely developed the infection after perforating his eardrum with a swab, and that he didn't realize what had been bothering him was an infection.
"We think that prompted him to use a cotton swab and that's when he ruptured his ear drum," Ramsay told CTV News on Tuesday. "This allowed the infection to move to the inner ear and once the infection is in the inner ear, you're basically millimeters away from the meninges (the three membranes covering the brain and spinal cord)."
It's thought that the man died within 48 hours of the infection develoing.
Ramsay said he knew of only a handful of cases resulting in death after using a cotton swab. What's more frequent, he said, are incidents of people becoming deaf after breaking their eardrums.
Doctors are once again warning people not to insert anything in their inner ear to extract ear wax.
"Putting in a cotton swab is very difficult because you can't judge the depth of the ear canal," Vancouver family physician Dr. Jeff Stein told CTV News.
"And the ear drum, the tympanic membrane, is easily damaged or perforated, and that can possibly lead to some serious consequences."
Ramsay is recommending Health Canada order manufacturers to put a much clearer warning on their packaging -- an actual drawing of an ear with a red X to show what you're not supposed to do.
Health Canada says it will review the recommendation. In a statement, Health Canada says it currently requires all manufacturers of cotton swabs marketed in Canada to have a warning on the outer label that clearly indicates they should not be inserted into the ear canal.
"In light of the Quebec City coroner's report recommending a picture warning on the outer labels, Health Canada will be reviewing this recommendation and will take action, if necessary,'' said agency spokeswoman Carole Saindon.
With a report from CTV's Jed Kahane in Montreal