We all experience some irritation of the ear to the point where it is tender to touch, itchy, red or even painful. Similarly we also experience changes in the sense of hearing where even sounds of moderate volume appear to be too loud. Most of us refer to this as sensitive ears and it can be caused by a host of disturbances or medical conditions.
What are sensitive ears?
Sensitive ears is a common term to describe various abnormalities of the ears and also to describe sensitivity to sound and touch. These abnormalities can include sensations such tenderness or pain and may even include allergic reactions to certain metal earrings. Sensitivity to sound (hyperacusis) means that certain volumes or even sound frequencies can be irritating or disruptive to a person.
Therefore the term sensitive ears is not a medical diagnosis due to the variations in possible meanings. As such, it is important to look at each abnormality or disturbance to understand why it occurs. Some may just be an exacerbation of an otherwise normal physiologic reaction, for example hearing becomes acute when stressed, while others could be due to certain diseases of disorders.
Why do the ears get sensitive?
The ear is a thin appendage with no bone but cartilage to maintain its physical structure. As with any part of the body, it is laden with blood vessels and nerves. It is prone to injury or disease and may also be particularly susceptible as it is delicate in comparison to other appendages since it is thin. In terms of the functional aspect of the ear, namely hearing, the ear is structured in a way that allows for sound waves to be directed into the ear and converted into nerve signals which are relayed to the brain for processing.
Sensitivity either to touch or hearing is usually an indication of irritation of the area or structures of the ear. It may also indicate that the nerves are in some way ‘overreacting’ where even the slightest touch or low volume sound is perceived in an exacerbated manner.
On the other end of the spectrum is reduced sensitivity to touch (numbness) or hearing (partial or complete deafness) which may occur for other reasons that hypersensitivity. Once again however, it is often linked to nerve damage and any irritation or disease of parts of the ear.
Causes of Sensitive Ears
Various causes of ear abnormalities, both in perception and sensation, have been discussed below since the exact meaning of sensitive ears can be highly subjective. It is important to remember that while these disturbances may cause sensitivity in some people, it may not have the same effect on others. Furthermore, the individual tolerance varies the degree to which a person will report sensitivity.
Ear pain is a common problem that can occur for a number of different reasons. The pain can occur on the outer part of the ear (pinna), ear canal, eardrum, middle ear or inner ear. Usually the inner ear pain is experienced as a headache. Ear pain is medically referred to as otalgia.
It may be due to trauma (like a blow to he ear), infections (otitis extrna or otitis media), foreign objects in the ear, air pressure (barotitis media) and even tumors (benign or malignant). However, when the ear is tender, even cold and wind can elicit discomfort or pain.
Read more on ear pain.
While ear pain may also include tenderness, some people experience sensitivity of the skin on the ears to a point where even light touch may elicit tenderness or pain. This is known as hyperaesthesia. Usually it is related to some underlying inflammation of the ear that can be due to various causes. However, there are instances where this sensitivity of the skin may occur for no known reason and not be an indication of any underlying problem.
Allergic reactions of the ears are usually a result of the ear making contact with certain triggers. This may include earrings made of certain metals, chemicals and even certain textiles. With regards to chemicals, these triggers may be found in soaps, creams, makeup, hair dyes, shampoos and gel. The allergy is a result of the immune system reacting to certain triggers (allergens) that are not usually harmful to the body.
Itching of the ear can occur for many different reasons. It is usually associated with skin irritation and skin diseases. This may include allergic reactions mentioned above, exposure to irritants , dryness of the skin and various skin diseases which makes the skin on the ears sensitive.
Irritants may include water, soap and various chemicals that do not cause an allergic reaction but irritate the skin. Skin diseases that can affect the ear may include atopic dermatitis (eczema), contact dermatitis, seborrheic dermatitis and psoriasis, among other skin conditions.
Read more on itchy ear.
The ear has the ability to perceive sound at a range of volumes and frequencies. Sometimes these sounds can become uncomfortable, as is the case with very loud sound. It can even cause damage to the ear structures. However, when an individual perceives sounds to be too loud or annoying when others do not then this is considered to be sensitivity to sound. It is medically known as hyperacusis.
Causes include head injury, viral infections involving the inner ear nerves, Lyme disease, temporomandibular (TMJ) syndrome, post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, alcohol hangover and certain drugs. Injury to the eardrum can also cause sound sensitivity as the tender eardrum moves when sound waves enter the ear canal. Intolerance to sound may also be a symptom of psychological stress, anxiety and nervousness.
Redness of the Ear
The outermost part of the ear (pinna) is a thin appendage and increased blood flow to the area will be easily seen. Red ears are usually associated with injury and irritation but can also occur when blood flow to the head increases. This may be seen with flushing that can occur for various reasons, not all of which are related to a disease. For example, flushing of the face and redness of the ears occurs when a person is embarrassed or angry. It may also be seen with alcohol consumption.