There’s plenty of evidence out there that we shouldn’t be using cotton swabs or Q-tips to clean our ears, but a 31-year-old man in England found this out the hard way after he developed a severe infection in his skull from a piece of leftover cotton that got stuck in his ear canal. The man couldn’t say when exactly this piece of cotton became lodged in his ear canal, but he had been suffering from seizures, earaches, discharge, and headaches that were so severe, he would vomit. These symptoms also began impacting his brain function, with the man often struggling to remember people’s names.

While those symptoms occurred over the span of 10 days leading up to the seizures, the man described experiencing earaches and difficulty hearing over the past five years. 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, believes the piece of cotton was in there for some time, due to the amount of wax it was encased in, causing his pain over the years and culminating in this major infection. When CT scans identified the source of the infection, doctors performed surgery, only to discover the cotton fibers encased in wax in the man’s ear as the root cause. 

The man spent almost a week in the hospital and endured two months of intravenous and oral antibiotics to treat the infection, but after he finished treatment he stopped experiencing long-term hearing or thinking problems. The main takeaway from this story, besides feeling horror stricken and throwing out all the cotton swabs in your bathroom, is to learn to clean your ears properly. Cotton swabs are useful only cleaning the outer ear, not the inner ear or the canal.

If you use a cotton swab to get wax out of your ear canal, you actually end up pushing the wax deeper and deeper inside your ear, often causing it to harden and become more susceptible for infection.

In this video below, Business Insider consulted a doctor from NYU Langone on the proper technique for cleaning your ears.

Let this be your reminder and motivation to take care of your ears just as you would any other part of your body. This includes cleaning your headphones, hats, pillowcases and everything else that comes in close contact with your ear canal. Your ears are literally holes in your skull leading to your brain, and as this man in England discovered, that is something you want to take seriously.