The outer ear, and specifically the ear canal, is a delicate environment that the body has to maintain to prevent bugs and infection while facilitating the sense of hearing. With constant exposure to the external environment, a host of different problems can arise and lead to symptoms like an itchy ear, moisture in the ears and even dryness within the ear canal. Often the latter is caused by our own doing, especially with unecessary and excessive cleaning of the ears.
Moist and Dry Ear Canal
The ear canal may not be overtly moist like the eyes when there is tearing. Instead it is kept moist by wax produced by the cells lining the canal. This earwax is also known as cerumen. It has several purposes apart from keeping the skin of the ear canal moist. Cerumen also traps dust and other particles and has an unappealing taste that helps to ensure that bugs do not inhabit the ear canal. It also protects the ear canal lining from water.
Earwax is produced by both sebaceous and sweat glands. Collectively this creates a thick waxy secretion which is usually brown to honey-colored although it can at times be slightly grayish. There is some degree of variation in the color and consistency of earwax among different ethnicities. However, in all cases earwarx serves the same purpose. It this earwax that is responsible for moist or dry ear canal although it is not moist in the context of being wet.
Causes of Dry Ears
The outer ear comprises the pinna and ear canal up until the eardrum. Most people refer to the pinna, the cartilaginous structure visible on the sides of the head, as the outer ear. It is covered by skin that is continuous with skin on the face and head, as well as with the ear canal. Therefore dryness of the outer ear is often due to the same reasons that are responsible for dryness of the skin elsewhere in the body. However, there are additional causes that have to also be considered.
Read more on how to remedy ear irritation.
One of the most common causes of dry ears, specifically the ear canal, is due to excessive cleaning. Contrary to popular belief, the ear canal does not require manual intervention to be cleaned. In other words, a person does not have to insert any object to clean it.
Wax is constantly produced and slowly expelled to flush out any dust and microbes. If there are no abnormalities or disturbances, the ear canal can maintain this self-cleaning mechanisms indefinitely. Apart from using cotton swabs, flushing out the ear with water or other fluids is also not necessary.
Cotton Swab Use
Although the purpose of using cotton swabs (also referred to as ear buds or Q-tips) is for cleaning, cotton swabs deserve special mention because of the potential problems that it may cause. Cotton swabs do not remove all the way from the ear, apart from surface wax that may adhere to the tip. Instead it pushes the wax together, causing it to become impacted and therefore not being able to flush out of the ear naturally. Along with excessive cleaning, it makes the skin of the ear prone to drying and infections.
Earwax does not evaporate in the same way as other surface secretions such as tears or sweat. However, environmental conditions like windy and dry climates can contribute to drying of the skin in the ear canal. Airborne dust and sand can also enter the ear canal can also cause the earwax to become thicker and clump together. In addition, these solid particles may also irritate the ear.
Another common cause of dry ears is a skin condition known as contact dermatitis. Substances may enter the ear canal and either irritate the skin or cause a localized allergic reaction. The inflamed skin is therefore unable to produce sufficient wax as normal and becomes dry. Contact dermatitis can be caused by number of substances such as water, soap, shampoos and hair dyes.
Seborrheic dermatitis is a skin condition where the skin becomes flaky and there is excessive oil secretion resulting in a yellow crusty discharge. The flaking skin is often referred to as dandruff. The condition tends to occur more frequently on the scalp but can extend to involve other areas on the head, like the ears. The exact cause of seborrheic dermatitis is unclear.
Chronic Otitis Externa
Otitis externa simply means outer ear inflammation. Often it is acute and due to a bacterial or fungal infection. These infections arise when the micro-environment within the ear is disturbed like with swimming. Therefore otitis externa is also known as swimmer’s ear. In acute cases the ear is moist. However, in chronic cases where the skin of the ear is constantly inflamed, there may be dryness. These chronic cases are due to certain bacteria or allergic reactions.
Eczema is a common term for many different types of dry and itchy skin problems. It usually refers to atopic dermatitis where the body is hypersensitive to certain otherwise harmless substances and causes inflammation of certain parts of the body, like the skin. One such type of eczema is aural eczematous dermatitis which affects the ear. It is more likely to be seen in people with a history of atopic dermatitis, allergic rhinitis or allergic asthma.
Other Signs and Symptoms
Dryness of the ear canal is a symptom and may be accompanied various other signs and symptoms depending on the underlying cause. Similarly, excessive dryness can lead to other symptoms as it predisposes the ear canal to a host of diseases.
- Itchy ear, specifically of the ear canal.
- Pain in the ear.
- Distorted hearing or even partial or complete loss of hearing (usually temporary).
- Flaking skin from the ear canal.
- Offense odor from the ear, with or without a discharge.
Symptoms such as dizziness, poor coordination and confusion that accompany ear problems may be a sign of a middle or inner ear problem. It requires immediate medical investigation.