How to Treat an Itchy Ear Canal
There is nothing more irritating and distracting than an itch in your ear. Anyone who has ever suffered from this common ailment knows how frustrating it is.
It seems as though the only feeling of relief comes from scratching or probing with fingers or q-tips. While this may bring temporary comfort, it is actually a very harmful way to tackle the problem. Thankfully there are plenty of safe ways to make your ear canals itch-free zones.
Don't let this get the better of you. In this article, we'll take a look at some of the best treatments and the preventative actions you can take to ensure that your ears stay itch-free in future.
What Is an Itchy Ear?
An itchy ear canal is often the result of an inflamed or flaky skin condition that happens when the sensitive skin inside the ear becomes damaged, waterlogged or infected with bacteria or fungus.
Medical professionals refer to it as Otitis Externa. Along with the itching sensation, symptoms can include dry flaky skin, soreness, pain, and a watery discharge that emits an odor.
The condition is pretty common and won't endanger your hearing. In fact, the biggest threat to your hearing comes from the use of objects that you might use to scratch inside your ear. If you're guilty of this, stop now.
Scratching will only serve to inflame the delicate skin inside the ear which will actually increase the itching sensation even more—it's a vicious cycle. Furthermore you could seriously damage your eardrum, either by rupturing it or by inadvertently packing earwax tightly against it.
Before determining the best source of treatment, it's important to familiarize yourself with some of the causes. This will help you to identify how the problem started in the first place. Read on to find out what these causes are.
Common Causes of Itchy Ear Canal
There are many reasons why you might have an itch in your ear. Here are some of the main culprits:
- Fungal infections. Are you prone to fungal infections in other parts of your body, such as your feet or groin area? It is possible for fungus to infect the ear canal too.
- Skin conditions. Do you suffer from any other skin complaints such as eczema or psoriasis? Unfortunately, skin conditions like these can easily spread to the ear canal.
- Swimming. Swimmers tend to be in the high-risk category for developing an itchy ear. So, if you swim regularly this is something to watch out for. Water can carry germs and fungus into the ear which can then lead to infection, especially if the skin inside the ear is broken or damaged. Swimming can also create excess moisture which can create a breeding ground for bacteria, causing infections like Swimmer's Ear (which can also be caused by other conditions like excess earwax or damaging health practices like extensive use of Q-tips).
- Ear infection. Itching is often one of the first symptoms of ear infections, which can have many different causes.
- Dry skin. If your ears don't produce enough wax, your may have dry skin in your ears which can cause them to itch. Itching them, in turn, may cause them to itch even more.
- Q-tips or cotton buds. Using q-tips or cotton buds a big no-no. The ear is well equipped to clean itself, but if you find that wax or other debris is persistently present in your ears, there are safer and more productive ways to clean them. The problem with using q-tips is that you risk damaging the soft skin inside the ear. This is an open invitation for bacteria to invade. You also risk pushing the earwax against the eardrum.
- Weather conditions. Weather conditions, namely warmer temperatures, may be causing your itchy ears. Do you live somewhere with a hot and humid climate? The increased water in the air raises your chances of developing an infection. Fungal infections in particular thrive in warm, humid conditions.
- Hair or bath products. Do you regularly use products such as hairspray, shampoo, shower gel, bubble bath, styling gel, or hair dye? The residue from these products can easily get inside the ear during a bath or shower and cause irritation which leads to itching.
- Allergies. Do you suffer from allergies (namely dust, food products, pets, or pollen)? The histamine release that is triggered by the allergen and causes a runny nose and red puffy eyes might also be responsible for the itch in your ear canal.
- Trauma to ear canal. People who frequently itch the inside of their ear, use q-tips, or itch their ear with things like bobby pins, tooth picks, or paper clips might accidentally damage the sensitive skin inside their ears, which can in turn cause more itching or infection, which will also cause itching.
Treatment and Prevention
Although an outer ear infection or itchy ear canal will sometimes clear up by itself, it is a problem that can often be stubborn and persistent. The best approach is to think about
- How you are going to treat it and also
- How you will prevent it from happening again.
Treatment falls into two stages:
- Stopping the itch, and
- Clearing up the infection or skin condition.
Firstly, if you are having ongoing ear issues, you should consult a doctor so that she can clean your ear if necessary and prescribe ear drops. You'll likely need to see an ENT specialist (ear, nose, and throat). Your doctor might also take a swab of your ear canal to determine whether fungus is present. Results from a swab usually take a few days to come back.
What happens next depends on the underlying condition:
- Your doctor may prescribe you ear drops. Ear drops will contain a minimum of two active ingredients: 1. An ingredient such as hydrocortisone that will quickly subdue the itching and any resultant swelling, and 2. An antibiotic to kill the bacteria which causes the infection.
- If you are diagnosed with having a fungal infection, your doctor might also prescribe anti-fungal drops or ointment as well.
- You may be prescribed a steroid cream or lotion to use on an on-going basis to prevent itching and earwax build-up.
- You may get swimmer's ear drops to treat the various factors contributing to swimmer's ear.
- You may also get oral antibiotics if your ear infection is accompanied by fever or blood or pus draining from your ear.
- It may be recommended that you change lifestyle habits, such as the kind of shampoo, earplugs, or earbuds you use. It may also be recommended that you start new habits, such as wearing earplugs while swimming or working out to prevent moisture build up.
Whilst using ear drops prescribed by your doctor, you can start to take preventative measures to ensure that the itch and/or infection does not return (see below). Just because the ear drops have cleared up the problem, don't assume that it is incapable of coming back. Preventative action is an on-going process and the more vigilant you are, the greater chance you have of keeping your ear canal itch-free.
Note: Ask your doctor about long-term treatment and what all of your options are, including home remedies. It's possible that something you can do at home will work just as well as a prescription medicine and have the added benefit of being cheaper.
For mild-to-moderate ear infections, especially those where pain is not a serious issue, you might want to try a home remedy before resorting to prescription drugs.
- Rubbing alcohol and white vinegar.
One common method involves mixing one part rubbing alcohol with one part white vinegar (a 50:50 split). Use a pipette, dipper, or teaspoon and let the solution run into your ear by tilting your head to the side. Keep it inside for a few seconds before letting it drain back out onto a paper towel.
The alcohol and acetic acid in the vinegar will go to work on the infection and also help to clean your ear. Don't overuse this method because it can dry out the ear which will lead to more itching. Simply apply it once or twice a day until the infection has cleared.
- Olive oil or coconut oil
Though not scientifically proven to be effective, some people say that putting a few drops of olive or coconut oil into the ear and letting it sit for a few minutes before letting it drain out on a weekly or bi-weekly basis can help prevent excess wax build-up.
- Warm compress
Applying a warm compress to the ear may help ease the pain of the infection.
- OTC pain medications
Over-the-counter pain medications like Acetaminophen or Ibuprofen may help reduce the pain as well while waiting for the ear to recover.
Take these precautions to lower the risk of developing an itchy canal again in future:
- Prevent excess liquid from entering. When showering or taking a bath, gently place a small amount of clean cotton ball over the entrance to your ears to prevent excessive water and bathing products such as bubble bath from getting inside. Be careful not to push the cotton too deeply and avoid it completely if you find that it irritates your skin.
- Purchase a swimming headband. If you go swimming, think about buying a swimming headband to keep your ears dry and free from the threat of fungus and bacteria. If you do get water inside your ear, try to drain it out by tilting your head to the side. As a last resort, you can use a hairdryer, providing you place it on the lowest setting and hold it about 50cm away from your ear. Do not use a hairdryer if the skin in your ear is broken or sore.
- Use olive oil in your ears. Clean your ears and prevent wax build up by using a little olive oil. Simply tip a small amount of olive oil onto a spoon, tilt your head to one side and let the oil run into your ear (if you find this difficult, you can ask somebody to help you or you could buy a dropper/pipette from your local drug store or chemist for a couple of dollars). Let the oil settle in your ear for a few minutes then tilt your head back up and let the excess oil drain out onto a paper towel. Repeat the process with the other ear and do this on a regular basis - maybe two or three nights every week before going to bed.The oil will also help to moisturize your ear canals and sooth the skin.
- Drain earwax. If you find that excess wax builds up inside your ears and the olive oil trick doesn't work, visit your doctor regularly so he can drain the wax. You can also buy wax-softening ear drops from your drugstore or chemist, but use these sparingly.
- Protect your ears in the shower or bath. This especially applies to products you use while showering or bathing. Try to avoid getting shampoo, hairspray, bubble bath, shower gel, or other chemical irritants into your ears.
- Be gentle with your ears. Always remember that the skin inside your ears is delicate and easily irritated. Never put anything hard inside your ears that might damage or antagonize the skin.
- Be careful with hearing aids and ear plugs. If you wear a hearing aid, try to wait until your ear canal is dry after showering before you put the aid back inside your ear. The same applies to ear plugs of any kind—including the ones you use to listen to music. If possible, avoid wearing hearing aids altogether until an itch or infection has completely cleared up.
- Controlling your allergies. If you suffer from dust, pollen or other allergies, reduce your exposure to allergens and take antihistamine medication when necessary.
- "Ear eczema factsheet." 2015. National Eczema Society. Retrieved March 22, 2017.
- Hain, Timothy C, MD. "Ear Wax." October, 2012. American Hearing Research Foundation. Retrieved March 22, 2017.
- "Itchy ears." (n.d.) Department of Otorhinolaryngology, University of Texas McGovern Medical School. Retrieved March 22, 2017.
- Nall, Rachel, RN, BSN. "What causes itchy ear? 5 possible causes." November 1, 2016. Healthline. Retrieved March 22, 2017.
- "Otitis externa - causes." October 10, 2015. NHS UK. Retrieved March 22, 2017.
- Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD. "Ear infections — Diagnosis and treatment." August 27th, 2016. WebMD. Retrieved March 22, 2017.
- "Swimmer's ear: Insight into acute otitis exterma." 2009. Department of Otorhinolaryngology, University of Texas McGovern Medical School. Retrieved March 22, 2017.
Did You Find this Article Helpful?
Did you find this article helpful? Or perhaps you have another method for treating an itch in your ear canal that I haven't discussed. Please leave your comments below!
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.