is it safe to use cotton balls as ear plugs?
Sleep Safety

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

Last Updated on September 30, 2023 by Louise Carter

The use of cotton buds in the ears, especially Q-Tips, is a source of significant debate.

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 an effective alternative to earplugs, keeping medication (ear drops) in place overnight and staying warm when sleeping in a cool room.

However, 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 it’s not fit for purpose, and the process can be hazardous. If you want to block your ears while sleeping, wear 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 most prominent when sleeping. Some people place cotton wool in their ears before bed, claiming they can 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 it’s 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 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. You may need to block your ears due to a snoring partner or traffic outside your window.

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 twice 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 doctor.

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 believe a cold room is better for sleep, so many people go to bed with open windows. Sleeping next to a fan is always advisable, but some people 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 ears can prevent 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 have 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, also called 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 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, as 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. Another concern is the inability to hear.

You may think that eliminating sound is the point of earplugs, but there are hazards. A cotton ball that fills the entire ear canal could prevent sound from penetrating your sleep, including alarms.

Being unable to hear fire alarms, burglar alarms, or alarms 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 mute unwelcome noise from outside, like sirens, street traffic, and noise from neighbors.

How To Apply Cotton Wool To The Ears

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

The easiest way to do this is with Vaseline. This petroleum jelly is safe for use in the ears and is a natural lubricant that makes cotton wool easier 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 the cotton wool.
  3. Roll the cotton wool into a bullet shape like a formal earplug.
  4. 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 when you wake up before showering or washing your hair. Don’t recycle cotton wool. You can leave the Vaseline because this is a natural cleaner for the ears.

Sleeping with cotton wool in the ears arguably puts your health at risk. Use cotton wool for short periods, replacing the material with a specialist earplug before bed.