A man in England has sworn off cleaning his ears with cotton swabs after developing a potentially life-threatening infection that not only affected his hearing, but also spread to the lining of his brain and caused neurological symptoms, according to a new report of his case.

The 31-year-old man’s troubles began when the tip of a cotton swab got stuck inside his ear canal, although he told doctors that he wasn’t sure exactly how or when this happened.


A bit of cotton left in the ear may sound harmless, but in this case, it wreaked havoc.

The man developed 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, the meninges, said lead author Dr. Alexander Charlton, a member of the team of ear, nose and throat specialists involved in the patient’s treatment at University Hospital Coventry in England.

Even though the infection didn’t enter the man’s brain — it didn’t progress beyond the lining — it was clearly causing neurological symptoms. The man was rushed to the emergency room after experiencing a seizure and collapsing, according to the case report.

Charlton told Live Science that he suspects that either toxins from the bacterial infection or pressure on the brain from the infection triggered the seizure.

Cotton tip found

The man’s symptoms, however, started long before his seizure occurred, according to the report. He had been experiencing pain and discharge from his left ear for about 10 days prior to the seizure and had experienced headaches on the left side of his head that were so severe, they made him vomit. In addition, he had started having trouble remembering people’s names.

But the problems in the man’s ear were nothing new; 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 the same side.

When he came to the hospital, doctors gave him a CT scan to examine his brain; the images revealed two abscesses, or inflamed areas filled with pus, 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.