Why Does Cleaning My Ear Make Me Cough?
January 27, 2022

The human body is immensely complex and has many systems that work together to allow for its proper functioning. The heart continuously pumps blood to the organs of the body, and the brain is constantly coordinating the actions of muscles and organs throughout the body. 

With the highly interconnected nature of the body, there are bound to be some quirks, and coughing when your ear is touched is a prime example.

Below is a closer look at the science behind this unique phenomenon, as well as a look at the correct way you should clean your ears. 

What Is a Reflex?

A reflex is an often automatic reaction to a certain kind of stimulus. In terms of the human body, reflexes are actions that are thought to occur without the involvement of the brain and conscious thought. 

The most common reflex that people are familiar with is the patellar reflex. When you go to the doctor for a routine checkup, the physician will likely have you seated with your leg dangling and strike your knee with a special instrument known as a reflex hammer. When the knee is struck, the lower leg will kick out all on its own. 

There are a number of different reflexes in the human body. Some have important uses in diagnostic tests to ensure proper neurological functioning. Read on for a closer look at some unique reflexes in the body, including the one that causes you to cough when you place something in your ear. 

What Is the Babinski Reflex?

One reflex that you may or may not be familiar with is the Babinski reflex. The stimulus that evokes the reflex is dragging something on the bottom of an individual’s foot while they are lying on their back.

In neurologically healthy adults, this action will result in the toes curling down. For healthy children under two and adults with neurological problems, the stroke of the bottom of the foot causes the toes to spread out. 

The Babinski reflex is a very useful diagnostic tool because it is non-invasive, quick to perform, and could point to a potential problem. 

What Is the Grasp Reflex?

The grasp reflex is one that is unique to infants. It is usually present until about half a year of age. With this reflex, when something stokes the palm of the baby’s hand, the infant will close their hand and grip onto it. A lack of grasp reflex during this time may indicate an underlying issue

What Is the Arnold's Nerve Ear-Cough Reflex?

The Arnold's nerve ear-cough reflex is one that is quite unique and one that not very many people have. The reflex is caused by the physical stimulation of the outer ear canal and leads to the individual coughing.

This reflex is not necessarily indicative of anything wrong in the body, but it can become an issue and may even contribute to conditions such as a chronic cough.

What Is the Cause of Arnold's Nerve Ear-Cough Reflex?

Arnold's nerve ear-cough reflex is not a common reflex. If you are one of the few that have it, you may wonder what exactly causes you to have this reflex and not others.

Here is a closer look at the different components that contribute to Arnold's nerve ear-cough reflex. 

What Is the Arnold’s Nerve?

Arnold’s nerve is a small offshoot of the vagus nerve known as the auricular branch of the vagus nerve. The nerve is connected to the sensory neurons of the ear canal. In the case of those with Arnold’s reflex, their activation leads to the stimulation of the vagus nerve.

This is the area that is thought to be the cause of the ear-cough reflex as these individuals have a hypersensitivity to the stimulation of the inner ear. 

What Is the Vagus Nerve?

The vagus nerve is one of the most widespread nerves in the human body; it has a large number of jobs. The vagus nerve helps to regulate the functioning of vital organs such as the digestive tract, heart, and lungs. In addition to aiding the regulation of these organs, the nerve is also responsible for reflexes such as coughing, sneezing, and swallowing. 

In the case of those with Arnold’s reflex, the signals between throat irritation and the sensation of touch in the inner ear are thought to get jumbled. This results in a cough following ear canal stimulation.

Precautions for Those With Arnold’s Reflex

Those that have Arnold’s reflex can live their lives normally without thinking about their unique reflex. Yet, there are some precautions that may need to be followed to avoid incidental ear injuries. 

The first precaution would be to completely avoid the use of cotton swabs or any other object to physically clean out the ear canals. The use of these could be dangerous as one second you could be cleaning your ears, and in the next second, you lose control and begin coughing with an object in your ear. This scenario is a recipe for disaster and could result in an eardrum perforation. 

Another issue that those with Arnold’s reflex may encounter is chronic coughing. Depending on the sensitivity of the reflex, even the slightest stimulation could cause a cough. A case study looking at individuals with Arnold's reflex and a chronic cough found that the treatment with gabapentin showed promise in helping with the reflex and cough. 

How To Properly Clean Your Ears

Regardless of whether or not you have the ear-cough reflex, you should refrain from inserting anything into your ear canal. This poses an unnecessary risk to your eardrum and could actually cause the wax to be pushed farther back into the ear canal and cause it to get stuck.

Earwax is normally able to exit the ears all on its own but old wax can build up and cause problems such as conductive hearing loss, tinnitus, and more.

If you have earwax build-up, these techniques are great starting points to help remove the wax and restore your hearing to what it was before earwax got between you and your hearing. 

Ear Cleaning Solution

One of the best and safest options available when it comes to cleaning your ears is an ear cleaning solution. Ear cleaning solution typically contains some form of peroxide, which upon contact with the wax, releases oxygen gas. The bubbling action of the cleaning solution helps to gently break down earwax buildup and helps it to dissolve in the solution. 

The steps for utilizing an ear cleaning solution are fairly straightforward. You first lay down on your side with one ear facing up. You then place as many drops as are directed and gently massage the ear to ensure the solution reaches deeper parts of the canal.

You then wait for a couple of minutes and let the solution sit. After a few minutes, you can place down a towel and let the ear drain. If there is any ear wax remaining, you may want to utilize a bulb syringe and warm water to gently flush it out from the ear. 


Another safe technique you can utilize to clean your ears is oil. Oil may not seem like something you would use to clean your ears, but it can actually be quite effective. Oil works by softening old and hardened earwax in the ear. When the wax becomes softer, it can have an easier time leaving the ear naturally over time. 

The use of oil for earwax is not a quick solution; it can take upwards of weeks to completely remove a wax buildup. While not fast, it is one of the most gentle methods on your ears and utilizes your ear’s self-cleaning properties to get rid of the wax. 

The use of oil can also be an effective pre-treatment for other removal techniques like ear cleaning solutions and irrigation to help soften the wax and improve the amount of earwax removed. Oil has the added bonus of also moisturizing the ear canal, which could help to combat irritation.


The last method that could help you safely clean out your ears is ear irrigation. This method utilizes a syringe with warm water to flush out the ears. Typically warm water is utilized, and the pre-treatment with oil may help to get a more effective clean. 

Unlike the other methods, ear irrigation involves liquid entering the ear with a level of pressure. Irrigation should be done with low pressure to avoid potential injury. If you are concerned with the ear irrigation method, you may want to ask your physician to do it. 

Rare Reflexes

In summary, coughing when you go to clean your ears may be an indication that you have Arnold's nerve ear-cough reflex. This rare reflex causes individuals to cough when the ear canal is touched and is why you may cough when you go to clean your ears.

The reflex is caused by a hypersensitive auricular branch of the vagus nerve and may be able to be treated with certain medication. 


What is a reflex? | NCBI

Palmar Grasp Reflex - StatPearls | NCBI Bookshelf

Arnold's nerve cough reflex: evidence for chronic cough as a sensory vagal neuropathy | NCBI

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Drew Sutton M.D.

Drew Sutton, MD is a board-certified otolaryngologist. He has extensive experience and training in sinus and respiratory diseases, ear and skull base surgery, and pulmonary disorders. He has served as a Clinical Instructor at Grady Hospital Emory University for more than 12 years.

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