Why do my ears itch and what can I do about it?

By | March 11, 2021

Are your ears itchy? Fighting off the urge to scratch deep inside your ear canal? Forget the folktale you learned as a child. It has nothing to do with whether or not someone is talking about you and everything to do with how the delicate skin in your inner ear is reacting to your environment.

What can cause itchy ears?

Your ears may itch on the external part of your ear (known as the pinna), or your ears may itch deep inside your ear canal, which is still considered the outer ear. Both are aggravating and annoying problems. Your itchy ears are most likely caused by a mild case of dermatitis, but it’s best to have a doctor take a look. Here are the top reasons your ears might itch, and what do about it: 

Illustration explaining why ears itch

Seborrheic dermatitis of the ear 

The most common reason for itchy ears is a condition called seborrheic dermatitis, a type of rash that affects the sebaceous glands, which produce oil. It can occur on the scalp and eyebrows, and in the ears. A mild case of seborrheic dermatitis causes the skin to flake, known as dandruff. When dermatitis is severe, the skin also may be red and intensely itchy.

Your risk of seborrheic dermatitis increases with age, according to Dr. Steve Daveluy, associate professor and program director at Wayne State University School of Dermatology.

Other common reasons your ears may itch

  • Irritation from hearing aids or earbuds (more on that below)
  • Earwax blockage
  • Contact dermatitis caused by irritants such as hydrogen peroxide, rubbing alcohol, water, ear drops (both prescribed and over-the-counter), or excessive ear cleaning
  • Food and seasonal allergies
  • Eczema, the name for a group of conditions that cause patches of the skin to become red, itchy and inflamed
  • Psoriasis, a chronic, genetic, disease of the immune system characterized by a red, itchy rash on the skin
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Hearing aids can aggravate the problem

A woman scratches her itchy ear.
If your ears are itchy, be careful!
Scratching can make the problem worse.

Hearing aids sometimes create itching because the domes or earmolds cause irritation by rubbing against the skin. They also block the ear canal, which can cause moisture buildup. Rarely, some people become allergic to a component of the hearing aid.

If your hearing devices cause your ears to itch, talk to your hearing health professional. They’ll examine the fit to make sure your devices are seated correctly. If the skin in your ears is dry, they may recommend using a product such as MiraCell ProEar, which makes hearing devices easier to insert and more comfortable to wear. Also be sure to clean your hearing aids regularly. Ask your hearing care provider for guidance if you’re not sure about how to clean hearing aids.

Earbuds also can lead to ear irritation, itchiness and infection

If you frequently wear earbuds (a type of headphone that sits just inside the ear canal), keep in mind that overuse can lead to ear irritation, including swelling and itchiness. In severe cases, unclean earbuds can trigger an outer ear infection (otitis externa), more commonly known as swimmer’s ear.

How to treat itchy ears

First, don’t put anything in your ears. While it’s tempting to insert something into your ear canal to scratch the itch, that’s exactly what you shouldn’t do. Not only do you risk damaging the eardrum and scratching the delicate skin of the inner ear, you also increase your urge to itch.

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“Try not to scratch at all,” Dr. Daveluy said. “For any skin, scratching makes the nerves that feel itch grow. So the more you scratch, the more you’ll itch.”

The more you scratch, the more you’ll itch.

Instead, try treating the underlying problem. If you have dandruff, try switching to a dandruff shampoo. If your itching flares up along with seasonal allergies, try taking an antihistamine. To alleviate dryness associated with over-cleaning the ears or earwax blockage, apply a few drops of baby oil or olive oil before you go to bed at night. 

Can you prevent itchy ears?

Yes, and prevention is important. To reduce your risk of developing itchy ears, resist the urge to insert items such as cotton swabs, bobby pins, twisted cloths or ear candles into the ear canal. These items can remove protective earwax or push earwax deeper into the ear canal. They can also break the skin or puncture the eardrum, which increases your risk for infection.

Why are ears so sensitive?

The environment in your inner ear is unique and faces some “special challenges,”

“Because of the warmth and moisture, the ear canal is at a higher risk of infection by bacteria,” Dr. Daveluy said. “To protect against this, the skin of the ear canal has specialized oil glands (called ceruminous glands) that secrete earwax. Much like the nose, the ear canal also grows small hairs to help prevent debris from entering the ear.”

Another unique attribute of inner ear skin is that it doesn’t contain eccrine sweat glands, the kind the rest of our body uses to secrete sweat when we’re warm or stressed. This, along with the waxy nature of cerumen, helps prevent moisture buildup in the canal.

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When to seek medical treatment

If you don’t know the cause of your itching, have tried a home remedy that didn’t help, have any breakdown of the skin or are experiencing pain and swelling, it’s important to seek medical attention immediately as infections in the ear can be dangerous.

Your family doctor can discuss your symptoms, examine your skin and determine the proper diagnosis to formulate an effective treatment plan. If you have a complicated case, you may be referred to a dermatologist or an ear, nose and throat physician.

Don’t let itchy ears prevent you from wearing your hearing aids

Itchy ears can be annoying, but they shouldn’t prevent you from wearing your hearing aids as prescribed. So often this condition is easily resolved, leaving you free to be part of every conversation—no matter what people happen to be saying.

If your hearing aids are causing problems or if you aren’t hearing your best, schedule an appointment with a hearing care professional. For a complete list of hearing centers in your community, visit our online directory of consumer-reviewed clinics.

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