What do itchy ears mean? What causes the itching? Are there myths or superstitions associated with it? Learn possible causes (including inside canal) such allergies, earwax, otitis, infections as well as their treatments. You will also cover something on itchy behind ears, earlobes, the outer part, and much more.
Itchy ears or refers to the uncomfortable tickling, prickling, tingling or irritating sensation that makes one want to scratch them (and not the bible meaning in 2 Timothy 4:3-4). The itchiness is often in your outer ear i.e. canal, earlobe, behind them and at times on your middle ear.
The itching can be mild or severe (very), constant (be throughout while some people have reported having this problem at night), can affect one ear (itchy left or right) or both. Sometimes, you can have extremely or really itchy case that you will be tempted to stick objects into them to ease the itching or mild. This is dangerous as it can cause trauma to your ear canal.
There are many superstitions associated with ear itching. For instance, a burning or itching ear is believed to mean someone is talking about you. To be specific:
- Itchy left ear – when you have your one itching, it is believed to mean or indicates someone who loves you is talking about you or whoever is talking is saying something nice about you.
- Itchy right ear – means the opposite. To calm it down, you need to “lick your finger and wipe it on your earlobe… bad about you will bite their own tongue” [oddrandomthoughts.com]. Quite funny!
From some sources, the interpretation is vice versa for right and left ears. There are also many other myths, superstitions and believes that vary from one society to another.
Before we discuss much on itchy ears, it is worthwhile to briefly look at its anatomy. This will ensure you understand everything well. It has three main parts which are:
- The outer part – it consists mainly of the pinna (auricle) and the canal (external auditory meatus).
- The middle ear - it has eardrums (tympanic membrane) which are just after the canal, tympanic cavity, and ossicles (three small bones – auditory bones) that connect eardrum to your inner ear.
- The inner ear - This “contains the sensory organs for hearing and balance” [asha.org] i.e. cochlea for hearing and semicircular canals for balancing, auditory tube (Eustachian tubes) that drains middle ear fluid to your throat just behind your nose and an oval window that connects middle to inner ear.
Canal, inner or inside ear confusion
For the context of this discussion, itchiness in inner, inside and or in canal have been taken to mean the inner part. This, therefore, means that all except otitis media can be responsible this issue.
We will not discuss the causes of itchiness on inner ear i.e. cochlea, semicircular canals or oval window but rather those of outer part (pinna and canal).
The exact symptoms that you will have will depend on the underlying cause. The most common symptoms that might accompany this problem include fever, swelling, tenderness or pain, scaling, flaking, crusting, redness, rash, drainage, sore throat, common cold, flu, coughing, among others.
There are many possible causes. Most of the causes are not serious, although some can be serious and require medical attention i.e. they may require professional ENT doctors or surgeon for proper diagnosis and treatment of this problem. Some of the common causes especially outer and canal include:
This “is a skin condition that causes red, flaky, crusty patches of skin covered with silvery scales… patches can be itchy or sore” [www.nhs.uk]. If it affects your ears, you can end up with itching ears. There is no cure for psoriasis but it can be managed by tropical products such as corticosteroids, vitamin D analogs, phototherapy or systemic treatments when it is severe.
Allergies to various allergens including food, medicine, dust mites, pollen, pet dander, insect bites, cleaning detergents, bathing products, etc. can trigger allergic reactions that will cause a runny nose, puffy eyes, swollen face and sometimes itchiness. To know it is due to allergies, you will notice common allergy symptoms such as the ones we have mentioned.
Conditions such as allergic rhinitis or hay fever though it causes inflammation inside the nose can cause “Itchy ears, nose, and throat” [webmd.com]. Obvious symptoms include watery and itchy eyes, coughing and throat tickle, runny nose, sneezing, stuffed nose, nose rubbing, among other symptoms.
Avoid allergens, get allergy shots, and try OTC antihistamines, among other treatments to manage the various symptoms that result from hay fever.
This dermatitis “characterized by pruritis, scaling, flaking, and erythema of the skin of the external auditory meatus and ear canal” [www.merckmanuals.com]. It is commonly caused by contact (contact dermatitis) with allergens or be spontaneous (aural eczematoid dermatitis or chronic otitis externa).
Common allergens that cause contact dermatitis include earrings containing nickel, beauty products such as hair dye, lotions, hairsprays, etc. while aural eczematoid dermatitis is common for people who are predisposed to have atopy, seborrhea or psoriasis.
Both aural eczematoid dermatitis and contact dermatitis often cause “itching, redness, clear (serous) discharge, desquamation, hyperpigmentation, and, sometimes, fissuring” [www.merckmanuals.com]. This makes one vulnerable to bacterial infections. Crusting and flaking might later occur.
Treatment for contact dermatitis is by avoiding irritants or allergens as well as using topical corticosteroids while aural eczematoid dermatitis requires Burow solution (dilute solution of aluminum acetate).
4. Seborrheic dermatitis (dandruff)
This is another possible cause that is commonly accompanied by “scaly crust that develops on the front of the ear or behind the crease of the ear [drbaileyskincare.com]. To treat rash due to seborrheic dermatitis, try medicated soaps, shampoos, and creams coupled with proper washing. Other treatments include the use of Lotrimin and hydrocortisone creams.
5. Dry and flaky – too little earwax
Going on with possible causes, especially ear canal is insufficient wax production. These waxes play a crucial lubrication role. When you have no wax or they are so little, your ear canal will dry up causing not just itching but also fakery i.e. they will be itchy and scaly.
Just as too little earwax can cause itchiness, having excess can cause itchiness and impair the hearing process. Furthermore, accumulation of dead hair, bugs, debris or anything can lead to itchiness.
Do not remove wax with a foreign object. Instead, place a warm cloth or bottle of water as you are lying down. This will soften the wax and let it come out. Wipe any wax that comes out. If you are unable, see a doctor to recommend best ways to remove excess earwax.
7. Hearing aids
Ill-fitting hearing aids that apply pressure on some parts of your ears, allergic reaction to these hearing aids as well as water getting trapped due to their use can lead to this itching problem.
8. Fungal infection or candida
If you are prone to fungal infection on your feet, groin or armpit area, it is possible to have that your itchiness is caused by a fungal infection. Frequent swimming might cause moisture inside your ears that give a favorable condition for fungal growth leading to the itchiness. A fungal eardrop will always recommend.
9. Otitis media or infection
If you have inflammation, earache and itchy middle ear on the space behind your eardrums, it is likely you have otitis media. This condition is common in children but might affect adults too. In children it might make them pull them, cry, and have irritable periods of sleep, fever, reduce eating among symptoms.
Such infections are commonly accompanied by a common cold, flu since the middle ear is connected to your upper respiratory tract via Eustachian tube. When this tube is clogged or does not work well can lead to infection especially by bacteria which are often responsible for pneumonia and sinusitis. Viral infections such as flue, cold, allergies can also cause otitis media.
Recurring or constant itchy ears and/or drainages through ear might indicate a faulty or clogged Eustachian tube. Seek professional medical help.
10. Otitis Externa or swimmer’s ear - red
Going on with possible causes, otitis externa can cause this problem. This is a “condition that causes inflammation (redness and swelling) of the external ear canal, which is the tube between the outer ear and eardrum” [www.nhs.uk]. Its common symptoms include pain that could be very severe, itchy in the canal, liquid and pus discharge, temporary loss of hearing ability among others.
Normally only one ear gets affected and it is commonly caused by bacterial infection. However, allergies, irritation (especially nervous habits that are accompanied by ear scratching) and fungal infection can cause this problem too. Treatment will require you see your GP first for diagnosis before various ear drops can be used depending on the cause.
11. Regular swimming or wetting them
Regular swimmers tend to develop itching problem than those who do not swim regularly. This is due to too much moisture, and possible exposure to the many germs in water – bacteria and fungi. This case will be worse if your skin is broken.
Use a swim cap or earplugs when you go swimming and use a cool blow dryer to remove any moisture after a shower or swimming. Ensure you do not get burnt.
12. Other causes of itchiness
There are many other possible causes that include eczema, sticking blunt objects into your ears can break your skin leading to germ entry especially bacteria, warm climatic conditions, ringworms,
Sudden & extreme
The most likely cause, if they happen all of a sudden is an allergic reaction. Some infections can also result to severe itching but it is unlikely to be sudden i.e. “sudden, severe, or unusual should be evaluated for a serious food allergy that can come on rapidly, with a strong need to scratch” [zocdoc.com]. Furthermore, sudden itching could be life-threatening if it a sign you have anaphylaxis.
When it occurs at night could be due to any of the causes we have mentioned if it begins during night time. There is not a specific cause itchiness at night only except for insect and bug bites.
When at this location, it could be due to a number of conditions that include
- Seborrheic dermatitis also common cause and it is characterized by lesions, plagues, and “white and flaking, or yellowish, oily, and sticky dandruff” [www.nlm.nih.gov]
- Ringworms characterized by a scaly silvery or red rash or patch, itchiness and inflammation
- Head lice can also be responsible for itchiness not just behind your ears but also in your scalp
It can also be caused by bug bites, allergic reactions, infections (bacterial or fungal) contact dermatitis, psoriasis, eczema among other skin related problems if they affect this particular area.
With a rash
Itch rashes on ears are commonly associated with skin problems or conditions such as eczema (characterized by scaly, rough, dry and thickened rash), psoriasis (if you have silvery white scales), contact dermatitis, seborrheic dermatitis, ringworms or bug bites.
Note that if you have a red-pink rash behind your ears that spreads to your neck and around your head, comes with fever, swollen lymph nodes, cold-like symptoms such as watery eyes, runny nose, sore throat or cold, it could be rubella, a viral infection.
If they, the common cause could be problems relating to piercing, earlobe skin irritation, and dryness. Allergies to nickel used in earrings and other metals can cause this itchiness.
Furthermore, infections including ringworms, contact dermatitis, eczema, seborrheic dermatitis, bug bites especially from head lice, psoriasis, etc. can cause irritation, itchiness, rash such as small red bumps, scaling, swelling, etc., on this area
Where do you expect this itchiness?
- On outer ear meaning: Since it comprises of the pinna and ear canal, the itchiness can be due to all the reasons we have seen that cause this problem except otitis media which affects middle part. More reasons are those we have seen that cause itchiness behind as well as on earlobes.
- Eardrum & canal: It is not easy to tell if your eardrum or ear canal is the one that is itchy since it is in the middle part, just after the canal. Most people tend to confuse these two.
Treatment & eardrops
While looking at each of the causes, we covered something on treatment that is specific to the cause. Most of these treatments will either deal with the cause or relieve itchiness.
Common ways to treat, relieve, heal or cure them include antibiotic ointments (antibiotic eardrops if it is caused by bacterial infections), baby oil (will make your skin softer if they are dry), topical anti-inflammatory especially steroids such as 0.1% percent betamethasone cream and 1% hydrocortisone cream, otitis externa eardrops, hydrogen peroxide, dilute rubbing alcohol solution, acetic acid, antihistamines, antifungal drops, etc.
When your itchiness come with fever and pus or blood drainage, a doctor might recommend oral antibiotics as an additional treatment. Other ways to stop this problem or provide relieve include:
- Problems such as inadequate lubrication by earwax, too much exposure to water, and presence of foreign particles that often cause broken ski can be fixed easily by a doctor.
- When caused by allergic reactions, avoid allergens and use antihistamines
- Avoid using any ointment or eardrops before you consult your physician since some of these products can cause inflammation and worsen the situation
- Avoid use of any eardrops if your eardrums are damaged.
- Cotton ball or plugs should be worn during bubble shower or bath to reduce the amount of moisture getting inside.
- Do not use headphones, earplugs or hearing aids if it is already infected.
These are some of the general ways to deal with or treat this problem.
Besides the treatment we have seen, you can try various home remedies to help relieve the itchiness. Some of the popular natural treatments you can give a try include
- For dry itchy ear canal or flaky cases - A few drops of warm mineral or vegetable oils such as olive oil will keep moisture intact and avoid dryness if you have a problem with flakiness or dryness. Do a wrist test to avoid being burnt.
- Use of Alcohol and water - To remove debris and kill any bugs is injecting alcohol or water via a bulb or ear syringe. The same syringe is can be used to draw water or alcohol you injected.
Other home remedies include the use of coconut oil, a mixture of rubbing alcohol and white vinegar, tea tree oil, etc. to help fight any infection and soothe irritation.
Prevention is better than cure, to minimize the chances of getting this problem (including inside the canal), try the following:
- Always clean them (do not overdo it as it gets rid of earwax essential for lubrication), dry and moisturize them,
- Do not clean them with cotton swabs, balls, paper clips or bobbin pins.
- Ensure your jewelry is anti-allergenic
- Dry excess water with solution if you swim frequently
- For those who produce too much earwax, see a doctor for help and advice on safe removal techniques.
When to seek medical help
If you have tried the various ways to stop this problem without success or you have sudden and really itchy ones (or extremely case), you are severely bleeding, or excessive drainage, and you might be required to see your ENT doctor.
Furthermore, if itching is a “symptomatic of a serious anaphylactic reaction, which impairs breathing; causes swelling, fainting, and vomiting; and is considered a medical emergency” [healthgrades.com].
Our references and sources