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There are few things more maddening than an inner ear itch — it’s the literal definition of an itch you can’t scratch.
Of course, the moment you feel irritation and itchiness in your ear canal, your first instinct is often to get in there with your finger or a Q-Tip to try to find some relief. Probing around in your ear won’t solve the problem, though — in fact, it might make it worse, says Seiji Shibata, MD, PhD, an otolaryngologist with Keck Medicine of USC. Trying to scratch away an inner ear itch could damage your ears, he says. Even more confounding: Dr. Shibata tells POPSUGAR that over-cleaning your ears might be the cause of your itchiness to begin with. So what’s the answer for itchy ears, and why are your ears itchy in the first place?
If you’ve been wondering the same questions — “Why are my ears itchy?” and “What is the treatment for itchy ears?” — keep reading as experts provide insights into what you should be doing to address ear itchiness and irritation. The truth is, there are several possible culprits behind your frustrating ear itch. It might be more than an annoying distraction, too; sometimes an itchy ear is the first sign of an infection and a hint that it’s time to make an appointment with your doctor to get your ears checked out. Ahead, experts explain all of your burning questions about why your ears are itchy, treatments for itchy ears, and home remedies for itchy ears.
Why Are My Ears Itchy?
Your ears could be itchy from over-cleaning, a buildup of earwax, or several other reasons, Dr. Shibata explains. Here are the most common causes of inner ear itches:
- You’re cleaning your ears too much. Cleaning your ear, especially with probing tools like Q-Tips, “can irritate the skin and also remove earwax,” Dr. Shibata says. Why that’s a problem: earwax “provides a protective film over the ear canal skin” and protects your ears from bacteria and fungus, he explains. “Without the wax, your ear is going to be unhealthy,” he says. “Removing too much can lead to irritation and, ultimately, itchiness.”
- You have an earwax buildup. On the other end of the spectrum, too much earwax can also cause ear itchiness. “Your ear has a mechanism of kind of clearing out the earwax from inside out,” Dr. Shibata says. But sometimes this process gets thrown off and a buildup of wax can occur, leading to irritation and itchiness.
- You have an underlying skin condition. People with conditions like eczema or psoriasis might experience itchiness in their ear, Dr. Shibata says. While it might seem strange to think of these conditions as affecting skin you can’t see, “the skin inside your ear is the same kind of skin on the rest of your body,” he notes.
- You have an infection. Infections such as swimmer’s ear, which occurs when water gets trapped in your ear canal, can cause inflammation, pain, itchiness, and discharge, Dr. Shibata says.
- You have allergies. If you have an allergic reaction that prompts skin irritation, it may affect your ears and cause itchiness. Seasonal allergies to things such as pollen can cause itchy ears, too.
- Jewelry is irritating your ear. Certain metals, including common allergens like nickel, are often used in jewelry and can irritate the skin of the ear canal, Dr. Shibata says.
Home Remedies For Itchy Ears: Do’s and Don’t’s
The treatment options for ear itchiness depend on the cause, but there are some doctor-approved home remedies you can try — as well as some you should definitely avoid.
If you have an itchy ear, do:
- Massage the roof of your mouth. While it’s a temporary fix, rubbing the roof of your mouth with a finger or your tongue is one way to soothe a pesky ear itch — and may be enough to dissuade you from sticking your finger or a Q-Tip into your ear canal. Why does it work? Some of the nerves innervating your ear canal affect the back of your mouth too, so massaging that area might provide some relief, Dr. Shibata explains. You can also try gently massaging the outside of your ear.
- Use an ear-clearing product like Debrox. If you suspect your ear itchiness is being caused by wax buildup, these over-the-counter drops are designed to help with that. Dr. Shibata says Debrox is safe to use as directed, and is “quite effective in loosening up the earwax” that may be contributing to your itch. (Note that if you think over-cleaning is the problem, however, Debrox likely won’t help.)
- Clear earwax with mineral oil or olive oil. Another option for wax buildup, specifically: you can use a dropper to put one to two drops of mineral or olive oil in your ear, Dr. Shibata says. “That can basically soothe the ear and also degrade a small amount of wax from your ear,” he explains. Some small studies have found olive and mineral oil irrigation to be somewhat effective at removing earwax, though doing it regularly may have the opposite effect, so use this strategy sparingly. Consider talking to your doctor before trying it out, and don’t do it if you have or think you may have a ruptured ear drum. Potential side effects are rare, but they can include itching, dizziness, and inflammation of your outer ear canal.
- Put down the Q-Tip. If you clean your ears often and start to notice a persistent itch, pause on cleaning for a few days and see if the itch calms down. If it does, it’s likely that overcleaning was to blame. According to Dr. Shibata, there’s no biological reason to swab out your ears; they’re self-cleaning, and probing into them with Q-Tips or self-irrigating them regularly with water and other solutions can do more harm than good. Your best bet is to leave them alone as much as possible, unless directed otherwise by your doctor. (The occasional wash with Debrox or mineral or olive oil is OK, if you can tell they’re stuffed up with earwax.)
- Clean any hearing aids or earbuds you use. This is more of a preventative measure, but it’s one that many people skip. Frequently used earbuds can become germ magnets, introducing bacteria and dirt into your ears. Pair that with the fact that earbuds and hearing aids can trap moisture in your ear when used for multiple hours per day, and you’ve put your ears at greater risk for fungal infections, Dr. Shibata says. Cleaning your earbuds on a regular basis gets rid of the bacteria, dirt, and germs earbuds can introduce.
If you have an ear itch, definitely don’t:
- Try to itch it with a Q-Tip or another type of probe. As tempting as it is to poke around in your ear with a Q-Tip or even your finger, Dr. Shibata strongly advises against it. Probing into your ear can actually push the wax farther in, causing it to become impacted and more difficult to remove.
- Wash it with plain tap water. “I would not irrigate your ears with just tap water because the pH is different,” Dr. Shibata says. You could disrupt the pH of your ears and cause them to become more prone to infection.
- Wash it with hydrogen peroxide. Though traditionally used for earwax removal, Dr. Shibata says he wouldn’t advise using hydrogen peroxide to clear out your ear. Other than mineral oil, olive oil, and prescribed ear drops, he says, “I really wouldn’t put anything in your ear,” he says.
When Should I Go to the Doctor For Itchy Ears?
If home remedies for itchy ears or over-the-counter products don’t address your itch after two to three days, call your doctor or see an ear, nose, and throat specialist. They can determine the cause of the itch and prescribe the proper treatment plan. If earwax is the issue, your doctor might do a lavage, washing out the ear with a solution like distilled water. If a skin condition is at play, a doctor or dermatologist can diagnose it and advise a treatment plan. If an allergy is to blame, Dr. Shibata recommends taking an antihistamine, like Benadryl or Claritin, though you should call a doctor if your symptoms don’t improve. If your ear itchiness is accompanied by discharge, pain, and/or hearing loss (including muffled hearing), see your doctor to discuss a possible infection or impacted earwax.
While an inner ear itch can be aggravating, you can often address it with over-the-counter solutions and home remedies. Head to the doctor if you start to notice symptoms of an infection, and remember not to poke around in your ears, no matter how tempting it is.