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Why Do My Ears Itch? | Causes of Ear Itching

Next to pain, itching is probably the most uncomfortable physical sensation we experience. It is annoying, distracting, and in some cases, absolutely maddening. When that itching occurs in a place we can’t reach, it can be difficult to find relief. Our ear canals are the most common place unreachable itching occurs, but most of us don’t give it much thought. Fortunately, most causes of deep ear itching are understood, and there are things we can do to alleviate or even prevent it.


What Causes Itching Sensations in the Ear?

DRY SKIN
In the outer ear, itching is rarely a notable issue, since we can easily rub or scratch that itch away. It is usually caused by dry skin or irritants that come into contact with the skin. It is no different than itching on any other exposed part of the body, but if it becomes a habitual nuisance, applying a bit of mineral oil or Vaseline to the affected area with a cotton swab can help rehydrate the skin and protect it from further irritation.

SKIN CONDITIONS
In addition to the superficial irritation of substances you come into contact with, two of the most common benign skin diseases, eczema and psoriasis, can also affect your ears. If scaling of the skin is present, one of these conditions will be suspected as the cause of your itching. Your hearing care provider and dermatologist can provide solutions.

ALLERGIES
In the inner parts of the ear, causes of itching become a little more complex. One of the most common culprits is allergies. The same histamine response that causes itchy hives on the skin, watery eyes, and sneezing can also cause the eustachian tube (the pathway that connects the ear to the throat) to become inflamed. Most of us will press on our tragus (that small flap of cartilaginous skin near the ear’s opening) and wiggle it vigorously to relieve this sensation, but the best home remedy is to take an antihistamine.

INFECTION
Almost everyone has suffered an ear infection at some point in our lives, and when we think back on this experience, it is usually the pain that we remember the most, but itching can also be an important indicator of bacterial buildup in the middle ear. If the itching you feel is persistent and intense, or is accompanied by a throbbing sensation or feeling of fullness, schedule an appointment with your audiologist or ENT to find out if infection is present. Treating it at this stage can save you from further discomfort down the road.

ANXIETY
You may be surprised to learn this, but simply being nervous, stressed, or feeling “on edge” can cause the ears to itch!


What Can I Do to Relieve Itching?

As mentioned above, medication is usually the best method to relieve persistent itching deep in the ear, but there are also some over-the-counter remedies you can try. Commercial ear drops that dissolve wax can clear the ear of buildup and debris and relieve itching. Taking a hot shower or sipping a hot cup of tea may also help, as the heat dilates blood vessels and improves circulation to the ears. An added benefit of this approach is that it is likely to relax you, which will reduce nervous itching.

Another useful remedy is placing a few drops of 70% rubbing alcohol in the ear. If this causes a burning sensation, that’s another sign of fungal or bacterial infection, which means a visit to your hearing care provider is in order. Even if an infection is not present, your provider may prescribe steroid drops to bring you relief.


Can I Prevent Itchy Ears?

The best way to prevent itching in any part of the ear is to practice good ear hygiene. While we are all tempted to clean our ears at home, this often does more harm than good. No foreign object should ever be inserted into the ear (this means cotton swabs, too!), because this pushes wax deeper into the canal, which can cause everything from painful blockages to that persistent itching we’re trying to avoid. Wax is actually a very important component of ear health; it keeps the inner ear waterproof and resistant to microbes. Gently washing the outer ear with a soft washcloth and warm water will rinse away any excess wax or debris and help keep dermatitis at bay.

If you wear earrings, make sure they are made of a hypoallergenic metal such as pure gold, sterling silver, or titanium, as some other metals (chiefly nickel) can react with the skin and cause itching.
Avoid getting excess water in your ears whenever possible. Swim with your head above the surface and consider wearing a shower cap while bathing. Additionally, switching to a shampoo formulated for sensitive skin can cut down on ear irritation.

When inserting hearing aids or earbuds, or any other device that fits into the ear, do so gently and carefully. It may seem like a small gesture, but anytime we place anything in or near the ear canal, we are potentially disrupting the ear’s natural defenses against invaders.

6 Ways You Can Damage Your Hearing Without Knowing It

Noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL) is the most common type of hearing loss, but folks aren’t always sure where their hearing loss comes from. There are some fairly obvious ways to damage your hearing, such as listening to music at excessive volumes, or firing weapons without hearing protection. Then there are situations where protecting your hearing doesn’t seem very important, but doing so might actually prevent further damage. Consider the following sneaky causes of hearing loss.

1) WORKPLACE NOISE

Although many construction and manufacturing jobs state that hearing protection should be worn at all times on the job, these warnings are not always adhered to. Those who wear hearing protection may not be wearing it at all times — it may be removed to talk with co-workers or supervisors despite close proximity to high-noise-producing machines, and depending upon how loud those machines are, damage can be caused fairly quickly. Even with hearing protection, noise damage can slowly accumulate and wear on the delicate hair cells in the inner ear.

2) OTOTOXIC MEDICATION

Ototoxic medications are drugs such as painkillers that have chemical properties that make them toxic to the sensory cells in the ear. Painkillers taken in high quantities create not only a risk for dependency but for losing hearing as well; strong pain medications first cause a ringing in the ears before beginning to have adverse effects on hearing, but the impairment often goes away after discontinued use.

3) SMOKING

Because of the impact and high profile of major diseases caused by smoking, potential hearing damage as a side effect of smoking often flies under the radar. But nicotine is a vasoconstrictor that causes blood vessels to shrink slightly, restricting blood flow to the inner ear and preventing oxygen from reaching it. Over a lifetime, this “suffocates” the ear.

4) DRIVING A CONVERTIBLE

Driving more often creates potential for developing or worsening hearing loss, thanks mostly to the sounds of the road and other passing vehicles. Some cars dampen sound, but convertibles lose that extra layer of “quiet ride” protection, leaving ears exposed to potentially dangerous noise levels around them. An October 2009 study found that driving some convertibles at speeds between 50 and 70 miles per hour exposed drivers to noise levels of 88 to 90 dB — beyond the level where damage begins to occur (85 dB).

5) PUBLIC TRANSPORTATION

The squeal and grind of light rails, trains, and even buses coming to a stop have the potential to cause hearing damage to daily riders of public transportation because they’re constantly exposed to noise. Rough or curved tracks prevent smooth rides, leading to more noise. And those who are waiting for their bus or train are exposed to potential traffic on a busy street, which can sometimes reach levels of 100 dB or more.

6) ATTENDING SPORTING EVENTS

Due in part to the nature of sporting events — watching athletes perform — the danger of noise is often forgotten. Many stadiums still manifest crowd noise dangerous enough to damage hearing. Seattle’s CenturyLink Field last year posted a decibel record of 137.6, enough to cause permanent damage in 30 seconds. Noise levels of 115 dBs or more — about the equivalent of a concert — are not uncommon but are safe to experience for only 15 minutes.

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