Itchy, Itchy Ears: Common Causes and Solutions
By Dr. Hilary MacCrae, Au.D., CCC-A, F-AAA
When asking about ears, every audiologist has heard this: “My ears don’t hurt, but they itch a lot!” Whether or not a person uses hearing aids, itching in the ears is very common. But why?
A lot of things can cause itching all over the body, and the ear is no different. I’ve briefly listed some common causes and solutions, but saved an in-depth look for conditions related to hearing aid issues.
CAUSE: Dry Skin
Itchy, dry skin in the ear canal can be caused by your environment—cold winds and dry air in the winter and over-air conditioned air in the summer. It can also be caused by over-cleaning (especially with cotton swabs, which can absorb natural oils too quickly) and by natural aging.
A drop or two of an oil like Miracell® in each ear at night will absorb while you sleep and often provides fast relief—but take care to never place oil in an ear that has history of holes in the eardrum. Lotion on a little finger or cotton swab can also be put inside the ear canal. Often a humidifier can be the answer to dry skin.
CAUSE: Medical Conditions
Medical conditions like allergies, outer ear infections like “swimmer’s ear” and eczema or psoriasis can cause or worsen itching inside the ear canal. Surprisingly, high levels of stress or anxiety can be felt as itching and discomfort all over, including inside the ears.
SOLUTION: Seek Medical Treatment
Ear, nose, and throat physicians: If allergies or ear infections are the issue, physicians specializing in the ears, nose, and throat (“ENTs” or “otolaryngologists”) can prescribe helpful treatments. Dermatologists: Skin-specialized doctors can help with diagnoses like eczema and psoriasis, for which there are many different treatments available. If you think stress might be the problem, talk it out with a licensed counselor, psychologist, or psychiatrist. You may relieve yourself of more than just an itch!
Hearing Aid Issues
Although hearing devices don’t usually cause allergic reactions, there are other ways they might contribute to itching.
- Ear wax: If there is a build-up of ear wax inside the ear, a hearing aid can make it worse, causing itching or irritation until the ear is cleaned.
- Loose fit: If a hearing aid is sitting too loosely inside the ear, it can “tickle” the canal and cause itching.
- Tight fit/moisture: If a hearing aid has a very tight fit in the ear, and is worn for a very long time each day, moisture can accumulate behind the hearing aid and cause a damp, itching feeling (kind of like when you sweat in the summertime).
- Sensitivity to cleaning solutions: While the hearing aids themselves are usually hypoallergenic, clients will rarely experience allergic reactions to cleaning solutions either in our clinic or over-the-counter versions used at home.
SOLUTIONS: See Your Hearing Care Provider
- Audiologists, and audiology assistants: The hearing care providers at HHC can work with you to look at the fit of your hearing devices (loose/tight) and make recommendations of how to proceed with other changes and treatments. We can also look deeply in your ears, a process called “otoscopy,” to see if dry skin, ear wax, or allergic reactions are the problem. When in doubt, contact your provider!
There’s nothing else like scratching an itch, but we have some recommendations for how to go about it, to avoid causing more problems. Here are some techniques:
- Push and wiggle: Placing a finger on the space in front of the ear and “wiggling” can help ease itching with or without a hearing aid in place. This is using the flat of your finger, not your fingernail!
- Readjust your hearing device: If possible, remove and re-place your hearing aid, or pull the ear bud in and out, to apply some pressure inside the ear and scratch that itch.
- “Referred” itching: This one is a bit weird…Often used by people with missing limbs, “referred” itching is when you scratch itch by not scratching it at all! Instead of trying to reach deep inside your ear canal, gently scratching another part of the body (like the back of your hand) while thinking about your itchy ear (“referring” the itch to the ear), can provide a surprising amount of relief. I’ve used this myself when I get an itch on the bottom of my foot in the car. Sometimes it works!
- What NOT to do: Don’t place foreign objects like Q-tips, bobby pins, long fingernails, pens or pencils, paperclips, or golf tees (yes, we’ve been told someone used a golf tee!) in your ears for itching or wax removal. These objects can push ear wax toward the ear drum, or cut the skin inside the ear and cause bleeding. When that cut begins to scab over and heal…it will itch even worse!
No one likes to be uncomfortable, but itching is part of daily life. Try some of the solutions listed above, and don’t hesitate to contact your hearing care provider if you’d like more guidance or advice on how your unique ear needs to be treated.