There's a fair amount of annoying absurdity associated with the cotton swab.
The traditional use for these things is, of course, cleaning-out one's ear canal. Probably that's not a good idea, though. The back of the Q-tips® package at which I'm looking says
If used to clean ears, stroke swab gently around the outer surface of the ear, without entering the ear canal.
WARNING: Use only as directed. Entering the ear canal could cause injury. Keep out of reach of children.
(Emphasis theirs.) A swab could push cerumen (ear wax) deeper into the canal, and pack it more tightly. With or without the cerumen, the swab could be pressed hard enough to rupture the tympanic membrane (ear drum). And the swab might even promote infection.
But, though there may be some tiny number of people with such odd convolutions to their outer ears that a cotton swab would be helpful in cleaning them, most of the rest of us could get better or faster results with a cloth or tissue. If we're not going to put the swab in our ears, then it probably just shouldn't touch our ears at all. Granted that the box merely says
If used to clean ears, but I remember a commercial from Cheesebrough-Ponds featuring Orson Bean, cleaning his outer ear with a Q-tip®, and advising us
Never put anything in your ear, except your elbow. (Someone get that man a tissue.)
When doctors and medical advice columns tell their audience not to use these things in the ear, they frequently use a formula which gets my back up. Formally, it's Not-X. When X, then Y. which is to say that they claim something doesn't happen, and then tell us what to do when it happens. Jeez! More specifically, they tell us
The ear canal does not need to be cleaned, because it's a self-cleaning organ. […] When the ear canal needs to be cleaned, one should see a doctor.
Okay, the ear canal does need to be cleaned, because it is an imperfectly self-cleaning organ; let's not pretend otherwise while we're trying to keep the swabs out. And, as far as this
see a doctor business, while it may seem like a mighty fine idea to the doctors, most people don't want to pay the cost of seeing a doctor. Even where medicine is socialized to the point that there would be no pecuniary cost in seeing a doctor, there will be the cost of waiting (which will typically be significantly higher where medicine is socialized). People want their ears unclogged quickly.
A better alternative to the swab for cleaning the ear canal is the syringe. For a few bucks, most druggists will sell you a syringe that's basically a rubber ball with a nozzle. If you went to the doctor, then he'd probably use a more impressive syringe, made of metal and with a plunger. You could order one of those for yourself for about US$20, but it's unlikely to be more useful for you unless you start syringing not only the ears of everyone in your household but also those of all your friends and neighbors.
If you read the instructions on the syringe package, it will basically tell you to dribble water into your ear. You will probably find this dribbling signally unhelpful unless you've used other fluid to dissove the cerumen and are now just rinsing the mess out. You can buy expensive fluids from your druggist, or you can use the dilute hydrogen peroxide that he'll sell you for much less, or you can use a mixture of vinegar and baking soda, each bought from the grocer. In all three cases, that's going to tickle maddeningly.
I once had my ear canals cleaned by a Doctor Villavecer, in Westerville, OH. He used one of those impressive metal syringes. He didn't dribble the water into my ear; he blasted it. That worked pretty well, though I might have felt differently had a tympanic membrane ruptured. In any case, subsequently, this blasting is how I clean my canals, except that I use a rubber ball syringe, as I am leaving the ears of my friends and neighbors clogged but unmolested.
Backing-up, let's return to the warning on that Q-tips® package:
Keep out of reach of children.
Now, unless we're prepared to tell people to keep lollipops and twigs out of reach of children, it doesn't make a whole lot of sense to put the Q-tips® with the pornography and assault rifles. We can instead tell junior not to put anything into his ear, and reälize that a swab would be less terrible in disobedience than many other candidates. I reälize that Cheesebrough-Ponds is not really to blame for this specific bit of nonsense (responsibility lies in the hands of lawyers, of state officials, and of the fools who empower them), but nonsense it is, none-the-less.