by Cynthia M. Shepherd, MSN, FNP-C
Reviewed by Steven Thomas Kmucha, MD – Otolaryngologist
Having an incessant itch in the ear that no amount of scratching can shake off can take a real toll on you. It keeps you from concentrating on anything else, sucks the fun out of everything, and makes you want to rip your ears off.
Sounds a bit extreme for a little harmless itch in the ear, but those who have suffered from it will vouch that it’s anything but little or harmless.
The human outer ear canal is very sensitive; as a result, even a sudden change in the environment in the ear canal can lead to the onset of itchy ears. The ear canal is innervated with sensitive nerves, which make the ear canal just as responsive and prone to itching as any other part of the human body.
Additionally, the fact that we cannot view our own ear canals can cause uneasiness and drive us to probe the ear recklessly and too invasively.
Despite being a commonly reported nuisance, most people who suffer from ear canal itching often find themselves at their wit’s end when dealing with this distressing problem. Often, they end up aggravating the problem by using unsterile and sharp objects such as bobby pins, toothpicks, and coat hangers to relieve their itch.
Forceful insertions of such abrasive tools into an area as sensitive as the ear canal can cause skin scraping and eardrum ruptures. These will, in turn, provide free entry to bacteria as well as other foreign particles and debris to lodge deeper into the skin, paving the way for a far more serious infection.
Causes of Itchy Ears
Some of the most common causes of itchy ears are:
- Allergic reactions
- Ear infections
- Ear dryness due to insufficient or no secretion of ear wax
- Compulsive and intrusive ear cleaning with cotton buds that rids the cavity of the natural wax and the subsequent buildup of flakes of dry skin within the ear canal
- Earwax accumulation, as the wax tends to get pushed deeper into the ear canal by the constant probing with cleaning tools
- Water trapped in the ear canal
- Hearing aid- or headphone-induced irritation
- Ear canal dermatitis
- Insect bites
At times, even psoriasis, eczema, or acne can involve the skin of the ear canal.
A 2011 study published in BMC Ear, Nose and Throat Disorders reported that temporomandibular joint disorders (TMD) can have many symptoms, and an itchy ear is one of them.
A 2015 study published in Otolaryngology Online reported that there need not be an underlying bacterial or fungal infection to cause itching as evidenced by a condition called asteatosis. The study stresses the fact that it is important to consider asteatosis as one of the differential diagnosis for chronic and persistent itching when all other causes have been ruled out.
Signs and Symptoms of Itchy Ears
Aside from the obvious (itchiness), an itchy ear can also present with the following symptoms:
- Redness on the outside
- Discharge or a type of drainage that comes from your ear
- Pain or tenderness to the touch
Simple Ways to Treat Itchy Ears at Home
Here are some home remedies to treat an itchy ear.
1. Use Gravity to Remove the Fluid Buildup
If you feel like water has entered your ears during swimming or while taking a shower or bath and this is the reason behind itchiness in your ear, allow gravity to take its course and work its magic.
Gravity will help remove all the fluid buildup in the affected ear.
- Tilt the side of your head with the affected ear parallel to the ground.
- Put a clean finger in your ear.
- Now, try to create a vacuum to help dislodge the fluid.
- Use a cotton bud or towel to clean up the discharge.
You can also simply lie down on your side with a towel under your ear.
This remedy can also help to cope with a case of swimmer’s ear.
2. A Little Amount of Warm Water
Flushing your ear with warm water is one of the best ways to get rid of excess earwax that can cause itchiness in the ear. The gentle force of the water will dislodge the wax, making it easier to remove from the ear. Be sure to use only distilled water; never use tap water.
A 2013 study published in the Journal of Laryngology & Otology documented that only distilled water should be used for softening earwax. The study found distilled water to be comparatively much more effective than water mixed with sodium bicarbonate or an oil-based solution for the purpose of disintegrating earwax.
- Fill a rubber bulb syringe with slightly warm distilled water.
- Tilt your head upright and pull the outer ear up and back to straighten the ear canal.
- Use the syringe to gently put a small amount of water into the ear canal.
- Leave it for a minute, and then drain it out by tilting your head to the opposite side.
- Clean away the water and earwax with a clean cloth.
- Repeat the process on the other ear.
3. Olive Oil can be Beneficial
One of the most well-known home remedies to relieve an itch in the ear is olive oil.
Olive oil helps remove excess earwax and keeps your ear canal adequately lubricated. It can soften the rigid ear wax, thereby facilitating its expulsion from the ear. It also has antiseptic properties that may reduce the risk of ear infection.
A 2013 study published in Practice Nursing reported that regular olive oil lubrication may reduce itching and dryness of the ear canal skin, which often contributes to itching but may also assist in the ear’s natural cleaning ability and may help with the ear’s natural wax removal.
- Lie on your side with the affected ear facing up.
- Gently pull the outer part of your ear up and back.
- Put 2-3 drops of lukewarm olive oil in the opening of your ear using a dropper.
- Gently massage the skin at the front of the ear to help the oil work its way in.
- Remain on your side for 5 to 10 minutes.
- Wipe away any extra oil that drips from your ear when you sit up.
- Repeat in the other ear if needed.
4. A Few Drops of Hydrogen Peroxide Solution
Hydrogen peroxide is very effective in dealing with itchiness in the ear due to wax buildup. In fact, many commercial ear drops contain hydrogen peroxide or a similar compound as one of the main ingredients. However, too frequent use of hydrogen peroxide in the ear canal may worsen ear canal skin dryness.
Hydrogen peroxide helps dilute the consistency of the wax and causes it to bubble up and move out of the ear.
- Mix equal parts of hydrogen peroxide (3%) and water.
- Fill an ear dropper with this solution.
- Tilt your head sideways and put a few drops of this solution into the ear. Maintain this position for some time.
- Then, tilt your head to the opposite side to drain out the solution.
- Wipe away the earwax using a clean cloth.
- Repeat this process for your other ear.
5. Trust the Healing Potential of White Vinegar
White vinegar is another effective ingredient to get rid of an itchy ear.
However, it works best when combined with rubbing alcohol. While the vinegar helps dissolve the earwax, the rubbing alcohol serves as a drying agent and helps evaporate any residual liquid from the ear.
Moreover, vinegar also prevents the ear from any kind of infection by maintaining an acid balance in the skin of the ear canal.
- Mix equal parts of white vinegar and rubbing alcohol in a bowl.
- Soak a cotton ball in the solution.
- Tilt the affected ear upward, pull the outer ear up and back, and then squeeze 2-3 drops of this solution into the ear.
- Wait for 5 minutes, and then tilt your head to the opposite direction with the treated ear down so that gravity can exert its action and pull the solution and the wax out of the ear cavity.
- Remove the earwax from the outer ear with a tissue.
6. Apply Warm Compress
If the cause of itchiness in the ear is acne, then a warm compress can be extremely useful as it dries out the acne. Once the acne is healed, the itchiness will be gone
The heat from a warm compress helps reduce inflammation and irritation, which in turn can soften the acne to bring the pus to the surface. Plus, the warmth helps reduce any pain.
- Soak a washcloth in warm water and squeeze out the excess.
- Apply the warm compress on the ear for 5 minutes.
- Use a gentle cleanser to wash the ear.
- Use this remedy twice daily for a few days.
7. Use Blow Dryer
To help evaporate moisture in the outer ear canal, which can occasionally be the reason behind the itchiness, a blow dryer can come in handy.
The warm, dry air will promote the natural evaporation of the moisture from the ear canal and speed up the drying of a wet canal.
- Pull your earlobe away from your body.
- Hold a blow dryer about 10 to 12 inches away from your ear.
- Set the dryer heat to warm and air flow to low.
- Turn the dryer on and aim it directly into the ear canal.
- Hold the dryer in position for approximately 30 seconds.
- If required, repeat the process again.
Note: Do not expose your ear to the dryer heat for more than a few minutes to avoid burning.
8. Keep Your Ears Dry
Whether it is trapped moisture or an infection of the skin of the ear canal that may be causing the itchiness in the ears, keeping your ears dry as much as possible will help a lot.
Any moisture in the ear can cause irritation, inflammation, and infection.
- Dry your ears thoroughly after exposure to moisture from swimming or bathing. Dry only your outer ear, wiping it slowly and gently with a soft towel or cloth. Tilt your head to the side to help water drain from your ear canal.
- To prevent getting water in your ear canals when bathing, coat 2 cotton balls with petroleum jelly and put 1 in each of the outer ears; swimmers’ earplugs and a shower cap may also be helpful.
9. Maintain Good Ear Health
The maintenance of proper ear health is very important in preventing any kind of ear problems, including itchiness in the ears.
- Don’t use cotton swabs to clean the inside of your ear canal. It can ultimately cause more damage than good.
- Regularly clean the outside of your ears using a cotton ball, some warm water, and mild soap. Keeping the outside clean will help keep debris and allergens out of your ear canal.
- Always wear earplugs when swimming to keep water and debris out of your ears and to reduce the risk of an infection in the outer ear canal.
Prevention of Itchy Ears
Because the ears are largely self-cleaning, you must refrain from indulging in unwarranted ear cleaning yourself. All of the following objects that are usually employed for maintaining ear hygiene can be detrimental to the integrity of your eardrum:
- Cotton balls
- Cotton swabs
- Paper clips
- Bobby pins
Other preventive ways to stave off ear irritation and itching include the following:
- Be careful when choosing ear jewelry, and avoid jewelry made of metals that might result in an allergic reaction that leads to itching.
- If you are a frequent swimmer, use a solution to rid the ear of excess water.
- Manage overproduction of earwax by using doctor-approved approaches, such as ear drops or a bulb syringe.
- To save your ear cavity from excessive moisture, wear a shower cap while bathing.
- Use mild shampoos and shower gels that are specifically formulated for sensitive skin.
- If you use a hearing aid or earplugs regularly, make a point to disinfect them from time to time and insert them gently so as not to irritate the ear.
- Always keep your cell phone and earphones clean, as they can contribute to an ear infection.
- Avoid touching your ears with dirty fingers.
When to See a Doctor
An itchy ear that is not rooted in some underlying infection or ailment is rarely a cause of concern and tends to clear on its own within a few days. However, if you encounter problems such as bleeding or drainage from your ears or a sudden loss of hearing, please visit your doctor at once.
Also, if the itch fails to subside within a week despite proper home care, medical help will be warranted to identify the underlying cause and address the symptoms. Understanding the cause behind an itchy ear is the key to a successful treatment plan.
Minor itching related to dry ears, too much earwax, or a mild infection can be successfully managed at home with the help of some simple and effective remedies.
- Yawning or chewing motions can also help get water out of the ear canal by changing the shape of the ear canal.
- Clean only the outer ears regularly to prevent oil, dead skin cells, and other debris from collecting in the opening of the ear canal.
- Avoid putting foreign objects in your ear, especially cotton swabs.
- Protect your ears from irritants by putting cotton balls in your ears while applying products such as hair sprays and hair dyes. Be sure not to insert them too deeply.
- Use a humidifier to add moisture to your home environment if you suffer from dry ears.
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