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Hear, Hear! 5 Causes of Itchy Ears and How to Find Relief

Did you know that an infection is not the only reason for itchy ears? Read on to find out other causes and ways to address the irritation.

Older woman wincing while putting cotton bud in her ear.

The inside of your ear is rich with nerve endings. That’s why it’s susceptible to even the slightest tickle. When you have itchy ears, the sensation can be bothersome and uncomfortable. But, if you want to stop the itch immediately, sticking a cotton bud in isn’t advisable. Instead, find out what’s causing your ear itch to know the right treatment. This can give you the relief you’re looking for.

5 Causes and Suggested Treatments for Itchy Ears 

The ears are part of an intricate structure connecting the nasal and throat passages. Finding the root cause of your itch isn’t always easy. We’ve listed five possible reasons to help you identify what’s causing yours. 

1. Infection 

Swimmer’s ear is a common ear infection with itchiness as one of the symptoms. It occurs when water stays in the ear canal and creates a moist environment, encouraging bacterial growth.

Another common outer ear infection is otomycosis, a fungal infection. An itchy ear is a major symptom, but you may also experience pain, a feeling of fullness, and even tinnitus or partial hearing loss.

Meanwhile, the same viruses that cause the common cold can also give you itchy middle ear infections. It’s best to consult a doctor if the itch persists. They may prescribe suitable antimicrobial eardrops to treat the condition.

Prevention is also key. If you often go swimming, use earplugs to prevent water from getting into your ear. Also, remember that wearing earbuds, hearing aids, or headphones can make you more prone to itchy ears and, subsequently, ear infections. Make sure to keep these devices clean before use. 

2. Referred itch 

Have you noticed that your ears sometimes get itchy when you have a cold or cough? If your doctor doesn’t diagnose you with a middle ear infection, the source of the itch may be an inflamed throat.

The referred itch (when you scratch an itchy area, but the sensation is felt in another part of your body) usually goes away when you recover from your primary illness. If the itchy ear persists, consult your doctor to rule out any neurological disorders. 

3. Underlying skin conditions or allergies 

You may have itchy ears if you have existing chronic skin conditions like eczema or psoriasis. The inflamed and itchy skin could appear on your earlobes or around your ear.

Sometimes, allergies like hay fever can also cause itchy ears. You may also be allergic to shampoo or other products that accidentally enter your ear canal. Food allergies can also be another reason behind itchy ears. 

A doctor will diagnose your skin condition and may prescribe creams, ointments, or allergy medications to help stop the itch.

4. Asteatosis due to perimenopause or menopause

Older woman sitting in front of her laptop holds her neck with one hand, just under the ear.
With a drop in oestrogen during menopause, the ear lining may become dry, causing itchy ears. 

Asteatosis is a type of eczema in the ear. It is characterised by a lack of cerumen (earwax), leading to dry and itchy ears. It’s a common symptom of perimenopause or menopause in women.

During menopause or perimenopause, oestrogen levels fall or fluctuate. Since oestrogen promotes water retention and plumpness, lower oestrogen levels can make your skin dry, including the lining of the ear cavity.

5. Improper cleaning 

Sticking cotton buds, ear picks, or even your fingers into your ears to remove ear wax can do more harm than good. It can push the wax further into your ear and increase the risk of infection. It can even damage your ear canal or your ear drum.

Instead, gently wipe the outside of your ears with a clean towel. And because your ears are self-cleaning, it’s best to leave the ear canal alone.

Causes of Itchy Ears in TCM 

In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), the ears are governed by the Kidneys. Meanwhile, the meridian channels of the Triple Warmer, gallbladder and small intestines also run near the ears. Real Medical Senior TCM Physician Brandon Yew explains that itchy ears can indicate imbalances with the Kidneys or any of these meridian channels. 

These imbalances can be categorised into two main types: Exogenic – The infection of pathogens such as Wind, Cold, Fire, and Dampness, and Endogenic – The presence of Fire, Dampness, phlegm, Qi (vital life force) Stagnation, and blood clots.

TCM Remedies for Itchy Ears 

TCM can ease itchy ears with the help of herbal remedies and acupuncture.

Herbal formulas 

Several TCM formulas can help you deal with itchy ears. Jiu Wei Qiang Huo Tang (九味羌活汤) dispels exogenic Wind, Cold, and Dampness. Another formula is Er Long Zuo Ci Wan (耳聋左慈丸), which regenerates the Kidneys to nourish the ears, resulting in relief.

Physician Yew also recommends Tong Qi San (通气散), which dispels Stagnated Qi and blood clots to unblock the meridians surrounding the ear. Di Tan Tang (涤痰汤) also dispels endogenic Dampness, phlegm, and Stagnated Qi. All these herbal formulations unblock the meridians surrounding the ear and relieve itch.

Physician Yew cautions against self-prescribing these formulas. “Each herbal formula above targets different causes of itchy ears. They correspond to different body constitutions characterised by specific underlying imbalances. I strongly advise against purchasing any of them and self-medicating. Consult a certified TCM professional who will assess your unique body constitution and current medical state and advise accordingly. This minimises any further complication of the condition and speeds up recovery,” he explains. 

Acupuncture  

Acupuncture involves the stimulation of acupoints and meridian channels. This creates a healing-friendly and balanced environment for the body. “Acupuncture has a direct and powerful effect in dispelling the pathogenic factors, improves the qi and blood circulation to the ears, and even improves Kidney function,” notes Physician Yew.

Localised acupoints that dispel pathogens and unblock meridians to relieve the ear itch are: 

  • Yi feng (SJ17, 翳风) 
  • Chi mai (SJ18, 瘈脉) 
  • Jiao sun (SJ20, 角孙) 
  • Er men (SJ21, 耳门) 
  • He liao (SJ22, 和髎

Distal acupoints to use: 

  • Yang lao, (SI6, 养老): Dispels pathogens along the Small Intestines meridian, and restores and enhances qi and blood circulation to the ears to relieve itch. 
  • Ye men (SJ2, 液门): Dispels pathogens along the Triple Warmer meridian, and restores and enhances qi and blood circulation to the ears to relieve itch. 
  • Tai xi (KI3, 太溪): Revitalises the kidneys to nourish the ears, relieving itch. 
  • Zu lin qi (GB41, 足临泣): Dispels pathogens along the Gallbladder meridian, and restores and enhances qi and blood circulation to the ears to relieve itch. 

While more studies are needed, meta-analytical research in 2015 demonstrated, even if cautiously, the efficacy of acupuncture on pruritus (itching). Published in Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, the researchers concluded that acupuncture is more effective in treating pruritus than placebo acupuncture or with no treatment.

Itchy ears may be uncomfortable, but try not to reach for that cotton bud. Address the possible causes, and soon, you’ll be on your way to itch-free ears.

References

  1. Cleveland Clinic. 2022. The Truth About Itchy Ears: You May Be Causing the Problem. [online] Available at: <https://health.clevelandclinic.org/the-truth-about-itchy-ears-you-may-be-causing-the-problem/> [Accessed 5 November 2022]
  2. Frontiers in Allergy. 2021. Itch Beyond the Skin—Mucosal Itch. [online] Available at: <https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/falgy.2021.700368/full> [Accessed 5 November 2022]
  3. The Hearing Journal. 2014. Symptom: Itchy Ear. [online] Available at: <https://journals.lww.com/thehearingjournal/fulltext/2014/09000/symptom__itchy_ear.4.aspx> [Accessed 5 November 2022]
  4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). 2021. Ear Infection. [online] Available at: <https://www.cdc.gov/antibiotic-use/ear-infection.html> [Accessed 5 November 2022]
  5. Otolaryngology Online Journal. 2015. Microbiology of itchy ears. [online] Available at: <https://www.alliedacademies.org/articles/microbiology-of-itchy-ears.pdf> [Accessed 5 November 2022]
  6. Pakistan Journal of Medical Sciences. 2014. Otomycosis; clinical features, predisposing factors and treatment implications. [online] Available at: <https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4048507/> [Accessed 5 November 2022]
  7. Bengal Journal of Otolaryngology and Head Neck Surgery. 2021. Itchy Ears: Evaluation of Predisposing Factors and Treatment Outcomes. [online] Available at: <https://bjohns.in/journal3/index.php/bjohns/article/view/387> [Accessed 5 November 2022]
  8. Cleveland Clinic. 2021. Here’s How Menopause Affects Your Skin and Hair. [online] Available at: <https://health.clevelandclinic.org/heres-how-menopause-affects-your-skin-and-hair/> [Accessed 5 November 2022]
  9. Journal of Mid-Life Health. 2015. A retrospective analysis of dermatoses in the perimenopausal population attending a tertiary care centre in South India. [online] Available at: <https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4604670/> [Accessed 5 November 2022]
  10. Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine. 2015. Efficacy of Acupuncture in Itch: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Clinical Randomized Controlled Trials. [online] Available at: <https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4430643/> [Accessed 5 November 2022]
  11. Harvard Health Publishing. 2020. 3 reasons to leave earwax alone. [online]. Available at: < https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/3-reasons-to-leave-earwax-alone-2017051711718> [Accessed 22 November 2022]

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