Most people experience itchy ears for brief moments throughout their life, but for some, itchiness is a persistent problem that requires special medical attention. Those individuals with uncontrollably itchy ears may suffer from long-term discomfort due to a greater underlying issue.
What Causes Itchy Ears?
A wide range of conditions can cause ears to be itchy.
- One of the main causes is a dry ear canal, which is usually due to a lack of wax production or over-cleaning of the ears. Dry ears can also be caused by psoriasis and eczema. Both conditions can occur in the ear canal and/or the visible, outer portion of the ear and need to be treated medically.
- An outer ear infection, otherwise known as otitis externa or swimmer’s ear, can make the ears itchy. Outer ear infections may develop after swimming if the water in the ear canal does not evaporate and bacteria begins to grow. Outer ear infections can also be caused by abrasions in the ear canal from cotton swabs, fingernails, and other foreign objects such as bobby pins. In some instances, outer infections can be fungal in nature, which requires special attention. Otitis externa may cause swelling of the ear canal, pain, and drainage in addition to itchiness. Medical intervention is needed to treat infections of the outer ear, whether they are fungal or bacterial.
- Itchy ears can also be caused by allergies, which can be accompanied by redness and warmth. If your ears have been persistently itchy and you are unaware of any allergies, you should address your concerns with your primary care physician or ear, nose, and throat (ENT) doctor for treatment.
- Hearing aid users can also experience itchiness. This may be due to an allergic reaction to the material or irritation from the hearing aid itself. Modifications can be made to the style of the hearing aid or its material to alleviate the itching. Please consult with your audiologist if you develop itching, so he or she can make adjustments to your hearing aids.
- In addition, some people even develop chronic itching due to a nervous behavior. Those individuals start itching to “self-soothe” while anxious and the over itching causes the ear to become irritated. In this instance, a conscious effort by the individual is needed to break the pattern and stop the nervous behavior.
There are many treatments for itchy ears, but the benefit from treatment depends on the specific condition that is causing the itchiness. For dryness, a few drops of vegetable or olive oil in the ear canal can rehydrate the skin and alleviate itching. Hydrocortisone cream, such as Audiologist’s choice, can be applied to the ear canal. Please note, you should consult with your primary care physician or ENT before starting treatment for itchy ears. Some at-home treatments are not appropriate for all individuals based on their medical history or the nature of their condition. If you have tubes or perforation in your eardrum, do not use liquid forms of treatment! Again, consult with your doctor to find the treatment that’s right for you.
What to Avoid
- Never stick foreign items in your ears unless directed by your doctor! Cotton swabs, bobby pins, etc will irritate the ear canal and may cause abrasions to the skin. If your ears itch, it may feel good to itch them in the moment; however, it will only irritate your ears more. When you insert objects into your ear, you also risk cutting the skin, which puts you at risk for infection.
- Avoid swimming in questionable water to avoid otitis externa.
- If you know you have a perforation in your eardrum or tubes, do not treat your itchy ears without consulting with your primary care doctor or ENT to avoid damage to the middle or inner ear.
- Don’t use cleaning tools such as ear candles. Unless your doctor recommends them, the tools may be dangerous with little to no benefit.
When to See a Professional
It is always best to see your doctor when you develop a new symptom that seems persistent. Sometimes, at home treatments may be enough to relieve the itching; however, specific medical attention may be needed. If you are experiencing itchy ears in combination with the following symptoms, please consult with your primary care physician or ENT:
- Redness and warmth of the ear
- Ear swelling
- Ear pain
- Hearing loss or muffled sound quality
- Pressure or feeling of fullness in the ear
- Drainage from the ear
- Foul smell
If you have any questions or concerns regarding your ears, please speak with a doctor or ENT. They will know how to best diagnose and treat your issue.