Timothy C. Hain, MD, Most recent update: June 10, 2003.
Many people complain that their ears itch. This is usually due to a disturbance in the skin of the external auditory canal (see figure above). Here we will look at causes and treatment of itchy ears.
Ear canal skin is very sensitive. The slightest accumulation of debris, even a dead hair, may be felt as an itching sensation. We will next discuss the most common causes of itchy ears.
A normal ear has a thin layer of natural body oil. Some ears produce no ear wax which results in dry and itchy ear skin. Sometimes people compulsively clean their ears and dry them out by removing the natural wax. Dry ears tend to accumulate flakes of dry dead skin.
For people who just lack ear wax, occasional insertion of a few drops of vegetable oil can be helpful. For people who compulsively clean out their ears, we advise scheduled appointments for ear cleaning, usually every 6 months, and avoidance of use of 'q' tips, or similar instruments in between.
Sometimes the plastic of a hearing aid or polish on the surface of the plastic will cause an allergic reaction in the ears of the wearer. The polish can be removed or the hearing aid mold plastic changed.
When hearing aid users get water in their ear, the hearing aids can trap the water in the ear causing irritation. Keeping the external ear free of water is advisable.
Hearing aids may have a bump which puts pressure on the ear canal. This can be irritating and cause itching. The solution here is to have the hearing aid mold revised.
Skin diseases such as allergic dermatitis, psoriasis, eczema, seborrheic dermatitis can cause itching in the ear just as they do elsewhere. These are treated in the same way that they are treated elsewhere in the body. Generally they are diagnosed by otoscopy (looking inside the ear). Steroid creams are used in persons with allergic skin diseases affecting the ear.
Occasionally ears can be infected with fungus (Jia et al, 2012; Abdelazeem et al, 2015) or even ear mites (Al-Arfaj et al, 2007). Ear mites in particular, are common in cats, and are probably underdiagnosed in humans. These sorts of things sometimes take unusual measures to eradicate. Fungal ear infections are sometimes treated with preparations approved for athletes foot (Abou-Halawa et al, 2012), such as clotrimazole cream.
Sometimes people get very nervous and start to scratch themselves. This can also occur in the ear. This is likely an amplification of normal sensation that the person would otherwise ignore. Yilmaz et al (2015) reported that 43% of patients with itching ears had a "Type D" personality, as compared to 15% of controles. Type D personality is a psychological term describing the "distressed" type of person who tends to have negative feelings and avoids social contact. We are a bit dubious about this -- we think itchy ears are mainly associated with skin disorders in the ear.
General principles are to avoid aggressive cleaning and keep the ear dry. A few drops of a vegetable oil such as olive oil every day or two may help keep the ear from getting too dry and also protect it from water. We have discussed specific treatments along with causes above.