A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

Why do I start coughing when I clean my ears with Q-tips?

March 21, 1986

Dear Cecil:

Please speak out on this disturbing occurrence: each day when I clean my ears with Q-tips I start coughing. Why?

Cecil replies:

Probably because the Q-tip is tickling your tonsils, fogbrain. Try not to worry about these things.

The earbone connected to the throatbone, Part One

Dear Cecil:

You bill yourself as a modern-day journalist and you don't even bother to research your answers? You should be ostracized by competent fellow professionals and never allowed to print again for your answer to Glenn F. The reason Mr. F. coughs when he sticks a Q-tip in his ear is because his head is attached correctly, unlike yours. Two cranial nerves supply sensation to the oral cavity, throat, larynx (voice box), and trachea as well as the external ear canal. When a Q-tip is inserted, it stimulates these nerves, causing a discharge of signals to the brain. The nerves are not completely separated, so the brain senses an irritation in the throat, triggering the cough reflex. This same association of nerve impulses causes many people to feel they have an earache in addition to a sore throat when in fact their ears are free of infection.

In the future, lazy "reporter," if you don't know the answer to the question, look it up.

PS: I enjoy your column immensely.

Cecil replies:

Thanks for the vote of confidence, doc. Having looked into this matter in greater depth, I can now report that the two nerves in question are actually branches of one big nerve, the vagus. This transmits impulses from both the throat and the ear canal, triggering the cough/gag reflex. Med student M.Z. tells me the vagus nerve can also slow the heart rate. "A legend handed down by medical instructors," he reports, "has it that some unhappy physician once induced a cardiac arrest by performing a routine ear exam. Farfetched, but not impossible." Reflex slowing of the heart (bradycardia) also occurs when doctors stick tubes down somebody's throat. No wonder people get jumpy about going to the hospital.

The earbone connected to the throatbone, Part Two

Dear Cecil:

Regarding your recent discussion of the vagus nerve, be advised that the tickle in the throat as a result of cleaning your ears is a variation of the Bartender's Reflex. Old bartenders learned that if they stuck a finger in their ear it would facilitate eructation (medical talk for make them belch).

Cecil replies:

Let's see if I've got this straight. You poke your finger in your ear to make yourself belch, and you blow your nose to make your eyes stop watering. Not to criticize the Creator, but you have to think when he created Man on — what was it, Friday? — his mind was definitely on the weekend.

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