Why do I want to cough when cleaning my ears?

15 July 2007


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?


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 also supplies the back and lower floor of the external auditory canal, which is the tube towards your inner ear.

If stimulated, this nerve can provoke a coughing reflex.

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


My left ear, when cleaned with a Q-tip, triggers a violent gag reflex that has caused me to vomit before. I will try the "saying AHHHHHH" trick next time. Thankfully my left ear doesn't seem to get as dirty as the right. Glad to know it wasn't just me. My parents are both doctors and when I asked them about it they told me that it sometimes happens and there's nothing to do about it. I'm surprise it took me this long to google it.

ha ha ha ha ha too funny.

Everytime I clean both ears I do gag and really bad cough. I thought everyone done it.

I noticed that my husband always coughs when cleaning his left ear. I kind of got a kick out of it. 4 years after we got married I had a son and when he was about 7 months old I used a qtip just to get the water out of his ears and how ironic he coughed as soon as I did the left ear. He is now 2 and still coughs when he gets his left ear cleaned out. I wonder if this is also a genetic thing.

My Grandmother was the only other person I've know my whole life who does this as well. I have it in both!

I’ve always had this reflex and once asked my pediatrician and she said she had no idea why. It wasn’t a problem so I left it alone and just coughed it out. Just finished cleaning my ears and decided to finally google it... can’t believe it’s so rare !

I also thought everybody coughed when cleaning their errors… Guess not. We are special people with special powers

A non-smoker coughing like most smokers I know. Saved by the old Doctor's comment, "Open up and say aaaaaaagggghhhhhh!

Im part of the 0.6% but if you say ahhhh while cleaning out your ears you’ll feel some relief. Im happy to know im not alone in this and that this is actual a real life thing that people deal with, even if its just a small percentage. My doctors were never helpful with this and said it was normal. When i was younger, a doctor thought I was acting rebellious and started yelling at me to stop coughing. Needless to say i never went back and tried my best to hold in my cough ad long as i could when it came to the ear check. But now that i have come across this tip i will be saying ahhh to every doctors appt and will not care if they give me a weird look.

Here I was thinking it was all psychological or otherwise in my head. Come to find out I’m part of a 0.6% of something! Still wish I could clean my ears normally though...

I have the same reflex, both ears, and sometimes the cough causes physical pain all over my body. It's really horrible.

My Dr, once told me that I had small tubes in my ears and that coughing was normal, I guess it isn't "normal" after all. I also cough up a ton of phlem . my eyes water and it takes a little time to come back to normal, I wash my outer ear every day in the shower and save the inner for once every two weeks. I can't stand the torture.

I'm exactly the same way. So glad I'm not the only one. My coughing while cleaning my ears not only drives me crazy, but also my husband, He can't stand to listen to all the gagging and coughing.

Vera, all of that happens to me as well! I thought something was really wrong with me. So glad I found all of this to know that I'm not alone.

I have been gagging & coughing every time I clean my inner ear. I thought I reallly had something wrong with me. Glad I finally googled it.

I just had my ears cleaned by ETAA and start coughing uncontrollably when the doctor was cleaning my ear. She had to change to the suction method. I was like what happened and she explained?

I always had ticke sensation and I guess a little cough sensation when cleaning with QTips but never thought anything of it.

I can’t believe this is my unique superpower lol

My right ear is normal (physically), but I cough just slightly with that one. My left ear has a smaller tube (freaked my doctor out when she saw it, she was like, "What the hell is that?!" and then I told her, "Oh yeah, my left ear's tube is smaller than normal."), but I just about cough my lungs out when I try to clean my left ear out. It's insane. Causes me to cough up phlegm and everything. Ridiculous. Crazy to think I'm the special less than 1% of all people who deal with this. Oh, I can also wiggle both my ears too.

I thought everyone has this?!?!??!!

Me too!!

me three

I have it in left ear. My Neurotologist said avoid the problem and don’t clean your ears. He said your ears a designed to clean themselves. I wash in shower and towel dry. Problem solved.

Hi! First time caller, long time listener lol...whenever I stick a q tip in my ear I bleed out of my right eye...does anyone else experience this? I asked my doctor (he’s also my dad lol) and he says I’m the only one. His special little prairie princess (were from Omaha lol) I’ll take my answer off the air LOL!!!

Every time I stick a Q-tip in my right ear I feel like I'm going to puke for days I clough... I gag ...and I do it very sensitive... crazy right

Until I googled it, I have it in my left ear and I never understood it, until now.. I was reading this and I was like.. Well ain't I lucky, I get a cough ear. :P

Happenz to me too. Very mild cough, when I clean my right ear with a ear bud, I don't mind it.

Had to google this to see if it was a real thing because no one I've told could relate. People who've see me clean out my ears thought that I'm very sick or that I might give them something, so it's nice to have proof that it's how my body works.

I have the same thing in both ears coughing and when I’ve told people about (loads) they look at me if I’m on another planet

Your not alone it happens to me every time and is severe in both ears after inserting q tip i cant stop coughing. My mother also have it. The only person i could relate.

This happens to me in both ears when I use ear plugs (to shut out snoring) it's hard to use them nightly knowing it will happen if I'm not careful.

Never had a problem till I had surgery for a bowel problem. I was given a breathing tube and did have complications. My age is 63 and this is all new to me

I think mine started after I had surgery on my foot! Crazy. Must have been the breathing tube.

I often cough when going for ear syringing, but I now get it when I go for Micro suction. The junior doctor said she'd never heard of this before? I didn't think it was so unusual?

Does anyone think it is so surprising and worrying, that a doctor would not have heard of this before?

This is rare, specialist textbook stuff; most doctors are too busy dealing with important things that cost people their lives to obsess too much about minutiae.

i had this in my first year in medical schoo , you can find it in the anatomy atlas of head "promthues" in the german version page 128


Out of all the things to be .6% of, my throat and ears burn so bad when I have to clean them I can't stop coughing for 5 to 10 minutes after I clean them.

Same here Unlucky. I have to make sure and shower before i eat anything because cleaning them after makes me choke and gag to the point of tossing anything in my stomach. It is horrible! I do not have a strong gag reflex oddly. I can rough the back of my throat and nothing. Wondering if that is a common link.

im only 13 and i dont wanna die while cleaning my ears

It works. THANKS I hate coughing while cleaning.

I cough when both ears are cleaned and it is like I am going to cough up a lung..it is that bad..

I feel that way too, it hurts so bad I want to cry but I recently discovered a way to keep my ears clean and not feel like I'm going to die. If you have long fingernails or don't mind looking like a cokehead, when your pinky finger gets long enough, cover it with a very thin t-shirt and use that to clean your ear instead. You're also not stripping your ear of the vital wax it uses to protect itself. If you can't grow your fingernails long try to find or make a tool of similar size and strengtg

Ugh, this happens every time in my right and sometimes in my left. Is there any way to calm it down???

I have this happen to me also in my left ear only, and the only workaround I have found, is to open my mouth and say "ahhhhhhh" for the duration of me cleaning that ear. Try it :D

wow THANK YOU SO MUCH!! i'm honestly surprised that something so simple worked but i'm so relieved to not have a gagging/coughing fit after cleaning my ear now.

Thank you it worked in my right ear, but not in my left but I am grateful to have it work in at least one ear!

I'm 47 and have been bothered by this all my days, fits of coughing if I go anywhere near my left ear, I nearly threw up with it just now and finally got around to looking it up. I just tried the mouth open AAAAAAAAAGGGHHH thing, it's not perfect, but SIGNIFICANTLY better. The louder and more operatic I went the better it was. I wonder if Pavarotti started this way. THANK YOU

I cannot have either ear cleaned without an intense coughing response. 0.6 of the population you say?
Well, at least i'm special in one small area of life. ;o)


Hahahaha...I Thought I Was The Only One Who Felt Special About This. Lol

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