Man Suffered From A Deadly Skull Infection After Cleaning His Ears With A Cotton Swab

A man in England has sworn off cleaning his ears with cotton swabs after developing a potentially life-threatening infection, which not only affected his hearing, but also spread to the lining of his brain and caused neurological symptoms. The 31-year-old man’s troubles started when the tip of a cotton swab got stuck inside his ear canal, but  he told doctors that he wasn’t sure exactly how or when this actually happened.

You’d think a little bit of cotton left in your ear may sound harmless, but in this case, it wreaked havoc.

The man ended up developing a severe bacterial infection that started in his ear canal, progressed into the bone at the base of his skull and then moved upward, into the lining of his brain, according to Dr. Alexander Charlton. Even though the infection didn’t actually enter the man’s brain, according to doctors, it was clearly causing some neurological symptoms. The man ended up being rushed to the emergency room after experiencing a seizure and collapsing.

Charlton told Live Science that he suspects that either toxins from the bacterial infection or pressure on the brain from the infection is what ended up triggering the seizure.

The man’s initial symptoms started long before his seizure occurred, though. The 31-year-old had been experiencing pain and discharge from his left ear for about 10 days prior to the seizure and had  headaches on the left side of his head that were so severe, they made him vomit. He also started having trouble remembering people’s names.

The man simply didn’t think the problems in his ear were anything new, as he told doctors that he had experienced left ear pain and hearing loss over the past five years and had been treated twice for severe ear infections on that same side.

When the man finally came to the hospital, doctors gave him a CT scan to examine his brain. The images revealed two abscesses in the bones at the base of his skull, adjacent to his left ear canal. This signaled to doctors that although the infection may have begun inside the man’s ear canal, it had spread beyond that area.

The man was diagnosed with “necrotizing otitis externa,” or an infection in the soft tissue of the external auditory canal. (The external auditory canal is the portion of the ear canal from the outside of the ear to the eardrum.)

The man’s doctors performed a minor surgery to explore his ear canal; during this operation, they located and removed the cotton swab tip that had gone missing. The swab was impacted and surrounded by wax and debris, suggesting that it had been there for some time, Charlton said, adding that it probably contributed to the man’s recurrent ear infections over the years, culminating in the particularly severe episode.

The man spent nearly a week in the hospital and needed two months of intravenous and oral antibiotics to treat the infection, but luckily, he had no long-term hearing or mental problems.

He was was advised to never use cotton swabs in his ears again. “They can only cause problems,” Charlton said, noting that cotton swabs have been linked several different probelsm including ear infections, punctured eardrums, and impacted ear wax.

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