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What Is a Cotton Swab?

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  • Written By: M.C. Huguelet
  • Edited By: Heather Bailey
  • Last Modified Date: 17 September 2016
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A cotton swab is a small, thin shaft which terminates at one or both ends with a tightly wound cluster of soft cotton. Introduced commercially in the 1920s, the cotton swab is a common household item in many countries. Its household uses include applying cosmetics, cleaning, and making craft projects. Cotton swabs are also widely used in medical settings.

The design of a cotton swab is simple, comprising just a thin rod wrapped at one or both ends with a cluster of soft cotton. This rod may be made from wood, plastic, or paper which has been tightly rolled. Swabs intended for household use usually measure around 4 inches (10 cm) in length, while those intended for medical use generally measure around 8 inches (20 cm). Another key difference between household cotton swabs and medical swabs is that household swabs tend to be tipped with cotton at both ends, while medical swabs usually have just one cotton tip.

Perhaps the most common household use for the cotton swab is cleaning ear wax from the outer part of the ear canal. Many physicians discourage this practice, however. This is because inserting a swab into the ear can sometimes drive wax farther into the ear canal, and also because a swab inserted too far into the ear can puncture the ear drum, potentially causing hearing loss.

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There are many household uses for the cotton swab apart from cleaning the ears. It can be used to apply or remove cosmetics, particularly eye shadows, or to clean small or unusually shaped objects, such as oven knobs or keyboard keys, ridding them of dust or grime that may be missed by dusters or rags. Cotton swabs can also be useful to children as they create craft projects. The swab’s small cotton head makes it a good choice for detailed painting or for applying glue to small objects.

In addition to these household uses, the cotton swab also has several medical applications. For instance, it is commonly used to swab some area of a patient’s body during a culture. It can also be soaked in antibacterial solutions and used to clean wounds. Further, the cotton swab can be used to apply ointments to small cuts and scrapes as well as stitched skin. Cotton swabs found in doctors’ offices and other medical settings are often wrapped in a sleeve of paper to preserve their sterility prior to use.

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