Itching of the ear is a common problem and can be very annoying when it persists despite your best efforts to scratch the area. It is often not due to anything serious but remedying an itchy ear can at times be quite difficult. The skin of the ear canal is continuous with the skin around the ear. However, this ear canal skin is often more delicate and can be easily injured, irritated or infected which may lead to a host of symptoms such as itchy ears.
An itchy ear should always be examined by a medical professional. Never try to scratch or clean the ear with any object as it can damage the skin of the ear canal and even tear the eardrum.
Causes of an Itchy Ear
There are a number of possible causes of an itchy ear. Sometimes it may be as simple as climatic conditions such as wind or sun that causes drying of the ear canal which can then lead to itching. However, itching is also a symptom of many possible diseases and these underlying diseases should be diagnosed and treated.
Otitis externa is one of the more common causes of an itchy ear. It is a condition where there is inflammation of the outer ear. Most cases are due to infections. Otitis externa is often referred to as swimmer’s ear because it is more commonly seen in people who swim but it can affect any person. Many factors contribute to otitis externa and water being trapped in the ear is just one of these factors. Itchiness of the ear canal is a common symptom, along with an ear discharge and sometimes pain.
Earwax or cerumen is naturally produced by the cells lining the ear canal. It plays an important role in moisturizing these skin cells, repelling insects that enter the ear canal as well as preventing infections. Small amounts of earwax naturally drain out on a constant basis but sometimes when the wax production is excessive or pushed in with cotton buds (Q tips) then it can become impacted and cause a range of symptoms from itching to pain and even slight impairment of hearing.
A fungal infection of the ear canal is not uncommon. It is more likely to arise with drying of the ear canal, often associated with excessive cleaning of the ear. Water trapped in the ear canal can be another contributing factor. Fungal infections of the skin, commonly referred to as a ringworm (although it is not caused by a worm), is a common condition. It is usually superficial and can persist for long periods of time. Itching of the ear, specks of skin and a watery discharge are some of the symptoms.
Itching of the ears is not uncommon with allergies. It may be seen with allergic conditions affecting eyes, nose and the ears itself. Often the allergy is triggered by an environmental factor such as pollen, dust or certain chemicals that come into contact with the skin of the ear. These triggers are typically harmless substances but an individual sensitivity to it can cause allergic reactions. Intense itching is a common symptom.
Contact dermatitis is closely related to allergies. It is skin inflammation that occurs when the lining of the ear canal comes into contact with certain substances. There are two types – allergic contact dermatitis or irritant contact dermatitis. The latter can affect any person, even people without allergies. A range of substances can act as irritants, even sweat and water. When it comes to the ear, substances found in shampoos, hair dyes, ear jewelry and even hair can irritant the skin and lead to contact dermatitis.
Remedies for Itchy Ears
Sometimes the simplest of lifestyle measures can be sufficient to remedy the itching. These remedies should not be used as a means of replacing prescribed treatment.
- Avoid cleaning the ear canal with cotton buds, matchsticks or any other object. The wax in the ear is not dirt and does not have to be manually removed. The only time wax removal is considered is when earwax is impacted and it has to be removed by a doctor.
- Keep the ear canal dry. Try to avoid letting water enter the ear canal by using water-tight ear plugs. If water does enter the ear canal it should drain out on its own. However, for people with ear problems it may be advisable to dry it with an electric fan or hair dryer.
- Stay away from shampoos, hair dyes and hair care products that may enter the ear canal and cause irritation. These products should be stopped altogether and avoided until the ear condition settles down. For some people with an allergy to these substances, these products may have to avoided lifelong.
- Use oil to moisturize the ear. This is not the ideal method for relieving itching and should not be done if there is an infection of the ear canal or rupture of the eardrum. A few drops of a mild edible oil like vegetable oil may be useful for dryness. Only a few drops should be used and the the head tilted to quickly drain it out. However, as stated this should not be the first choice of remedy and it is important to first seek medical advice.
Treatment of Itchy Ears
Medical treatment may be required to treat itchy ears. It is important to bear in mind that itching is a symptom of some underlying condition. By treating the disease the symptoms will gradually resolve. Itchy ears may require the use of drugs such as antihistamines, antibi0tics and antifungal agents depending on the underlying cause. It should be treated along with the necessary lifestyle changes.
Corticosteroid drops are an effective way of treating itching but does not always address the underlying cause. These drops may be placed in the ear or impregnated in cotton wool which is then placed in the ear for a short period of time. Corticosteroids reduce inflammation irrespective of the cause. However, it should not be used long term. Steroid drops should only be used when prescribed by a doctor. It is always advisable to consult with an otorhinolaryngologist.