Science Questions

Why do I want to cough when cleaning my ears?

Sun, 15th Jul 2007

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Question

Paul asked:

When I clean the ear wax from my ears using a q-tip, I tend to feel an urge to cough. Is this a common reflex? Am I pressing on a ‘coughing nerve’ with the q-tip?

Answer

There is a cough-ear reflex, but only 2.3% of the population experience it. There’s something called Arnold’s nerve, part of the vagus nerve which supplies the head and neck. It supplies the back and lower floor of the external auditory canal – the tube towards your inner ear. If stimulated, this nerve can provoke a coughing reflex.

Although only 2.3% of people experience this in one ear, only 0.6% get it in both!

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