If you're in the habit of sticking cotton buds (aka Q-Tips) in your ears, snap out of it – that's the latest advice from the American Academy of Otolaryngology, which studies diseases of the ear and throat.

The Academy just published updated guidelines for ear care, warning against over-cleaning your ears and sticking anything inside them – including cotton buds – and advising people to ask for medical help if they experience issues with hearing.

By stuffing cotton buds inside your ears, you're risking gunking them up with an excess of earwax, a medical condition called cerumen impaction. Your ears are designed to clean themselves by gradually pushing earwax out, but by using buds you might be pushing all that excess wax back in.

"It is a strong reminder to patients that ear health starts with them, and there are many things they should do as well as many things that they should stop doing immediately to prevent damage to their ears," says the Academy's Seth Schwartz, who chaired the group overseeing the guidelines.

Earwax isn't the most pleasant substance to think about, but it does an essential job of keeping your ears healthy. The substance not only cleans out the ears, but stops them from drying out, and helps the ears to sweat naturally.

earwax-2Credit: American Academy of Otolaryngology

The wax also blocks any dirt particles trying to invade our ear canals. Normally, through processes like chewing – or any jaw movement – and growing more skin cells, the earwax gets slowly pushed out, hardens, and then drops off our ears or gets washed away.

However, sometimes this process doesn't work as designed. Unnatural earwax build-up is a problem for around 1 in 10 children and 1 in 20 adults, with that number rising as people get into old age.

If that's you, the American Academy of Otolaryngology says you should go and see a doctor to get some help – but whatever you do, don't take matters into your own hands (or ears).

"Patients often think that they are preventing earwax from building up by cleaning out their ears with cotton swabs, paper clips, ear candles, or any number of unimaginable things that people put in their ears," adds Schwartz.

"The problem is that this effort to eliminate earwax is only creating further issues because the earwax is just getting pushed down and impacted further into the ear canal."

Schwartz warns that anything you stick in your ears can damage the eardrum and ear canal, either temporarily or permanently. Do yourself a favour and get it checked out instead.

Doctors recommend going for a check-up if you notice a build-up of earwax, hearing loss, or ringing in your ears (which could be tinnitus).

This isn't new advice and is something experts have been saying for years, so let's hope the message finally gets through – cotton buds have their uses, but cleaning your ears out is not one of them.

The updated guidelines have been published in Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery.