is it safe to use cotton balls as ear plugs?
Questions And Answers

Is It Safe To Sleep with Cotton Balls in Your Ears?

(Last Updated On: October 14, 2022)

The use of cotton buds in the ears, especially Q-Tips, is a source of much debate and controversy. According to the British Journal of General Practice, otolaryngologists often advise against it. Despite this, many people sleep with cotton balls in their ears.

Sleeping with cotton balls at night is a safe and effective alternative to earplugs, keeping medication (ear drops) in place overnight, and staying warm when sleeping in a cool room.

However, the cotton wool can be driven too far into the ear, making it hard to remove, leading to a build-up of earwax that causes tinnitus and may result in failing to hear an important alarm.

Sleeping with cotton balls in the ears isn’t recommended, as they’re not fit for purpose, and the process can be hazardous. If you want to block your ears while sleeping, use earplugs.

Why Would I Put Cotton Wool in My Ear?

Cotton wool is cheap, easily accessible, and fulfills many purposes, including:

  • Cleaning the ears and removing earwax, especially in the form of a Q-Tip.
  • Keeping drops and other medications in the ear while treating an ear infection.
  • Blocking noise without the need to wear uncomfortable earplugs.
  • Reducing heat loss from the ears in cold climates.

These advantages are particularly prominent when sleeping. Some people place cotton wool in their ears before bed, claiming their ability to sleep through the night.

Can You Sleep with Cotton Wool in Your Ear?

Having established that cotton wool has its uses, is it good to put cotton in your ears while sleeping?

Most experts will say no, but this is a personal choice. Review the pros and cons of this approach and decide if you consider it a risk worth taking.

Benefits of Sleeping with Cotton Wool in the Ears

There are three main reasons anybody would choose to apply cotton wool to their ears while sleeping. If you feel these advantages are a risk worth taking, consider using cotton wool in your ears at night.

why put cotton wool in ear?

Peace and Quiet

If you’re a light sleeper, noise from inside and outside the home can disturb your rest.

Whether it’s a snoring partner or the sound of traffic outside your window that keeps you up at night, you may need to block your ears.

Earplugs purchased from a pharmacy or prescribed by a doctor are the safest option. Unfortunately, not everybody finds earplugs comfortable, especially those constructed from hard plastic.

Cotton wool can be torn into small chunks and turned into a makeshift earplug. Cotton wool will be much more pliable and flexible than an earplug, so people with shallow ear canals or sensitive ears may find this material more comfortable.

Retaining Medications and Drops

If you have an ear infection, it’ll likely be treated with ear drops.

You’ll need to apply these drops multiple daily, including at bedtime. Cotton wool in the ears can prevent the drops from oozing and seeping out of the ear canal.

If diagnosed with an ear infection, discuss the use of cotton wool with a healthcare professional. Some conditions lead to swelling and soreness, making using cotton wool in the ear painful – and potentially dangerous if the infection site needs to breathe.

Keeping Warm

If you step outside in winter without wearing a hat, you may find that your inner ear throbs and hurts. This is because the inner ear contains blood vessels that lack protection. A pain response urges protection if cold air blows against these blood vessels.

Experts often state that a cold room is better for sleep, so many people choose to sleep with windows open. Sleeping next to a fan is inadvisable, but some people opt to do so.

Even if you understand that sleeping in a cooler room promotes better rest, you may still be uncomfortable with a draft blowing around your head. Placing small pieces of cotton wool in the air can prevent this throbbing discomfort caused by cold air.

Risks of Sleeping with Cotton Wool in the Ears

In many respects, cotton wool is best avoided while you sleep. There are three significant risks to stuffing your ears with cotton wool before sleeping, each of which can lead to long-term repercussions.

Retention of the Cotton Wool

A risk of placing cotton wool in the ears during sleep is the risk of the cotton wool becoming trapped. As you lay your head on a pillow, the pressure may drive the cotton wool deeper into the ear canal.

You should always be able to easily pluck cotton wool from the ear in the morning without any additional apparatus. It has gone too far if you need to start using tweezers to retrieve the cotton wool.

If this happens once, remove the cotton wool and cease using it.

Earwax Build

Earwax, scientifically known as cerumen, is a product of two glands in the ear; the sebaceous and ceruminous. These glands contain tiny hairs that trap the wax inside the ear, alongside dust and other particles. The more we sweat, the more earwax is created.

Placing cotton wool in the ear makes us sweat more than usual, increasing earwax production. Blocking the ears also means the earwax has nowhere to go. If continued, you’ll risk developing the symptoms of tinnitus.

Tinnitus is defined by hearing loss and a constant buzzing sound in the ear. Living with tinnitus is akin to permanently walking around with cotton wool in your ears – all sounds will be muffled and muted. Treat tinnitus caused by earwax build-up by removing the wax.

Avoid digging with a Q-Tip or cotton bud to remove earwax. Clinical Governance: An International Journal recommends washing the area with eardrops or a homemade mix made from sodium bicarbonate, olive oil, and water.

can you sleep with cotton wool in your ear?

Inability to Hear

We explained how cotton wool can be used as a cheap, disposable way to block sound, but is it safe to use cotton balls as earplugs? Many people would say no, for the reasons discussed above. Another concern is the inability to hear.

You may be thinking that eliminating sound is the very point of ear plugs, but there are potential hazards to using cotton wool for this. A cotton ball that fills the entire ear canal could prevent any sound from penetrating your sleep, including alarms.

Being unable to hear fire alarms, burglar alarms, or even your wake-up alarm in the morning can impact your health. Equally, cotton wool can prevent you from hearing sounds requiring immediate response, such as a crying child.

Most earplugs purchased from a pharmacy will mute unwelcome noise from outside, such as sirens, street noise, and din created by neighbors, but allow urgent noise to make its way through.

How to Apply Cotton Wool to the Ears

If you must apply cotton wool to your ears when sleeping, ensure you do so safely.

The easiest way to do this is by using Vaseline. This petroleum jelly is safe for use in the ears and is a natural lubricant that makes cotton wool easy to remove.

Follow these steps if you plan to apply cotton wool to your ears at night:

  1. Tear off a piece of cotton wool that is large enough to remain in the ear canal overnight.
  2. Rub some Vaseline into this chunk of cotton wool.
  3. Roll the cotton wool into a bullet shape, akin to a formal earplug.
  4. Gently place the cotton ball with Vaseline in the ear.
  5. Don’t force the cotton wool right into the ear canal.

Remove the cotton wool from your ears as soon as you wake up in the morning before taking a shower or washing your hair. Don’t recycle the cotton wool – throw it in the trash. You can leave the Vaseline, as this is a natural cleaner for your ears.

Sleeping with cotton wool in the ears arguably places your health at needless risk. It’s safer to use cotton wool for short periods, replacing the material with a specialist earplug before heading to bed.