My itching ear canal is driving me insane
July 28, 2013 5:37 PM   Subscribe

Why does my left ear canal itch, and what can I do to make it stop? It's driving me crazy! YANMD.

About three years ago, I developed an itch inside my left ear. It comes and goes, but I generally feel the itch at least once a day (usually a few times a day). It can last anywhere from a few minutes to an hour, and it varies in severity—from a merely annoying tickle, to making me want to gouge my own ear off to make it stop.

Finally, about a year ago, I got a referral to an ENT, and had him take a look. He peered in my ear, and said he didn't see any sign of eczema or other issues. He did, however, pull a couple of long hairs that were crumpled up against my eardrum—one that appeared to be from my cat, and one that appeared to be from my own head.

I didn't notice the itch for a day or two, and I thought the problem had finally been solved. However, it returned in pretty short order. I went back to the ENT; he looked in my ear again; he pulled out another hair. The itch was back the next day.

Desperate for any kind of relief, I got into the habit of using moistened Q-tips to scratch it. This did provide short-term relief, but it also seemed to exacerbate the problem in the long term, and I read that you're never supposed to put Q-tips in your ears. So I stopped.

Using Q-tips did reveal something telling, though: my right ear produces plenty of wax. My left ear produces none whatsoever.

This seems like an obvious sign, but is this a cause or a symptom (or both)? Why would it stop producing wax? What can I do to to encourage it to do so?

I've been through two courses of antibiotics (for an unrelated condition) since this started. Whatever this is, it's not affected by antibiotics.

I do experience some minor tinnitus in the same ear (which also comes and goes, though not in connection with the itch, as far as I can tell), which I believe started around the same time as the itch.

For the most part, it's been confined to my left ear only. However, a few months ago, I started experiencing similar symptoms (to a much lesser degree) in my right ear.

Things I've tried:
  • Rinsing out my ear canal once or twice a week with a warm mixture of water and vinegar (this was recommended by my ENT). Seemed to provide some minor short-term relief, but I didn't notice any general improvement.
  • Putting a few drops of mineral oil in the affected ear. Again, minor short-term relief, but that's it.
  • Same thing with olive oil.
  • My current solution—which is by far the most effective thing I've tried, though still imperfect—is to put a little blob of hydrocortisone ointment on my pinky finger, and gently push it into my ear canal, whenever the itch flares up. (Sometimes I use a topical antibiotic ointment instead, just for kicks.) This often provides near-instant and near-total relief, and since I started doing it I've had entire days where I haven't felt the itch at all (hallelujah!). I don't know how much of this is due to the active ingredients in the ointment, and how much is simply due to their moisturizing effects. But the itch is still there, and it's still really annoying.
So, my two questions are:
  1. What the hell is wrong with my ear?, and
  2. How can I fix it?
posted by escape from the potato planet to Health & Fitness (20 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
I wonder if it's allergies or some sort of minor inflammation. When I develop hayfever (twice a year, during grass season in June and July, plus in October) my ears get very itchy. Exposure to pollution and mold makes my ears itchy. Generally speaking taking antihistamines will help me quite a bit.

My ears are also mildly itchy anyway so I end up cleaning them with a Q-tip almost every day.
posted by KokuRyu at 5:44 PM on July 28, 2013

Also, according to our family doctor, like warts and asthma, itchiness is not something that doctors like to discuss that much because they often don't know what causes the condition. Or if they do, they don't know of any silver bullet for curing it.
posted by KokuRyu at 5:46 PM on July 28, 2013

Response by poster: Possible, but I've never been known to have any kind of allergies, the itch is year-round, and it doesn't seem to be accompanied by any other allergy-like symptoms. Guess it couldn't hurt to try an antihistamine, though.
posted by escape from the potato planet at 5:46 PM on July 28, 2013

Have you considered the possibility of blockage, and using hydrogen peroxide to deal with said blockage?
posted by oceanjesse at 5:51 PM on July 28, 2013

Hmm. Are they suuuure about the eczema? Because I have it in both ears and the itch is insane. A little prescription Elidel when it's acting up usually does the trick.
posted by nubianinthedesert at 5:52 PM on July 28, 2013

I developed the same symptoms after a trip to Mexico during which I "lived" in the hotel swimming pool. Fortunately, my doctor keeps me supplied with an ear drop med prescription called Neomycin/PolymyxinB Sulfates and Hydrcortisone Otic. My suspicion was a microscopic gawdawful bug took residence in my ear canal and ain't no moving it on. Anyway, a week on that Otic puts a stop to the itch for several months... It flares up, I use the Otic, and so it goes.
posted by Lornalulu at 5:58 PM on July 28, 2013

When it happens to me, it's allergies, and Benedryl clears it up.
posted by drezdn at 6:05 PM on July 28, 2013 [2 favorites]

It might be worth asking another doctor to check you for something fungal - as a child I got fungus in my ear canals during the summer, and it itches terribly. It might also be something conferred from your sinuses or elsewhere (as KokuRyu suggests above). I get sinus infections frequently and it often manifests as itching in my ears or throat.

The ear wax isn't something I would read much into. Q-tips can push earwax deeper into your ear canal, so it's not immediately obvious on the Q-tip. If you're cleaning your ear canals regularly, you might also be removing the dead skin before it can get to the "ear wax" stage.
posted by angst at 6:21 PM on July 28, 2013

I've noticed that my ears produce very little wax. When my ears itch maddeningly, I'm assuming that there is cracked or dry skin inside my ear. I use a modest dab of Bag Balm on the end of a Q-tip. Lanolin is moisturising and the 8-hydroxyquinoline sulfate 0.3% (antiseptic) is scaring off infections. You could also use Triple Antibiotic Ointment, which has petroleum oil base.

I have used Bag Balm superstitiously for decades, telling my children that it seals out oxygen from cracks, scratches or scrapes on the skin.
posted by ohshenandoah at 6:21 PM on July 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

I've had this and it is maddening. I did not have any tinnitus though. I don't have any allergies, but I was told that I had "non allergic rhinitis". I made several changes at the same time so I am not sure what gets the credit, but the itch has been gone for several years now. The changes -
no gluten, no dairy (added dairy back after a year)
started treatment for hypothyroid
started taking vitamin D
eating much lower carb
posted by egk at 6:32 PM on July 28, 2013

I'd go to a dermatologist next.
posted by Wordwoman at 7:06 PM on July 28, 2013

I just want to chime in and say that I had the exact same problem and took to Q-tip use every day (sometimes several times a day) because it allowed me to scratch the inside of my ear canal. And then one day I developed a raging outer ear infection that was the most painful thing I have EVER experienced. After a course of antibiotics (oral + the Otic drops mentioned above) the infection went away--and so did the itching.
posted by agent99 at 7:23 PM on July 28, 2013

Just to be clear the sensation is in your ear canal, correct? I experience this frustrating itch in what I thought was my ear and ended up actually being my eustachian tube. It's part of your middle ear, but is on the other side of your ear drum, so completely inaccessible with a q-tip.

As another poster mentioned, this sort of thing may be easily remedied with an antihistamine like Benadryl, but if it's a persistent chronic condition, it might be worth another visit to a different ENT.
posted by triceryclops at 8:39 PM on July 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

I get that occasionally and I put a drop or two of argon oil on a qtip and gently put it in and move it around. Almost always fixes it so I assume it was just dryness. YMMV.
posted by michellenoel at 8:59 PM on July 28, 2013

Try a drop of castor oil.

For wax buildup, ear candling is great. Steaming hot towel compress for soothing relief.

And maybe consider allergies?
posted by ariela at 10:29 PM on July 28, 2013

How can I fix it?

Since your other ear has plenty of wax, you are a perfect candidate for an autologous earwax transplant:
Andrew Goldberg, MD, never tires of telling people about how he was outsmarted by a patient while working as a second-year otolaryngology resident at the University of Pittsburgh. Now the director of rhinology and sinus surgery at the University of California San Francisco Medical Center, Dr. Goldberg recalled how he assisted in the examination of a patient with a history of chronic otitis externa in one ear. Despite repeated trips to doctors for antibiotics, vinegar washes and drops, the patient’s ear trouble always came back.

Not this time. The doctors assumed that their treatments had finally done the trick, only to be told by the patient that he had likely cured himself by taking earwax from his good ear and sticking it in his bad ear. “I had no idea what that meant. I’m sure that we assumed, at the time, that what he was telling us was nonsense, that he was a little nutty,” Dr. Goldberg said. “We never thought anything more about it.”

The home remedy, however, now seems prescient in light of accumulating research suggesting that microbiomes, or distinct bacterial communities that coexist with us throughout our bodies, may play key roles in maintaining human health. When he began conducting his own microbiome research about five years ago, Dr. Goldberg realized that his former patient may have taken an intact, healthy microbiome and used it to re-inoculate the disrupted bacterial community in his bad ear.
Good luck!
posted by jamjam at 11:51 PM on July 28, 2013 [7 favorites]

When I eat very ripe cantaloupe I get itching in my ears.

It's a weirdness.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 7:04 AM on July 29, 2013 [1 favorite]

Although I don't recall ear hair being a factor, I had this same crazymaking ear itch about ten years ago. I believe this was the same time period in which I was consulting with an ENT to see why the small hole in my ear drum (from a tube that had fallen out after several years) wasn't closing. My then-wife and I were going to Hawaii, and we wanted to go snorkeling. The ENT roughed up the hole with a needle, which stimulated healing/closing of the hole. If memory serves, the itching began between the appointment in which he performed that procedure and the follow up a couple of weeks later. I mention these details because they describe a context not dissimilar to the aftermath of your ear hair removal.

At the follow up, I complained about the itching, which was new and driving me nuts. Told him the itching was so bad I was fantasizing about jamming a wire brush in my ear canal to scratch it. Although he didn't seem to think it was related to the procedure (which worked, BTW), he gave me a small sample tube of some prescription strength magical cream that cured my itch within a couple of days. I'd see an ENT or a dermatologist if I were you.
posted by biggestofdogs at 7:04 AM on July 29, 2013

Have you tried taking an oral antihistamine? My ear canals will itch sometimes which I finally figured out was an allergic reaction—kind of like hay fever, but even if I'm not having any other symptoms. (What's really weird is sometimes the outer tip of my nose will itch from this, too!) I have found that taking some kind of allergy medicine for a few days seems to help quite a bit and usually clears up the problem.

But yeah, as someone with ear problems, including a hole in one of my ear drums, you want to be really, really careful with putting stuff in your ears and/or irritating it with q-tips!
posted by Eicats at 12:07 PM on July 29, 2013

I had this for a couple of years - exact same symptons. Finally mentioned it to my GP and she said it looked like a bit of a yeast infection. Perhaps that's why the moistened QTip exacerbated the problem. She prescribed me floxin otic drops, I think, and it went away in like 2 days.
posted by buzzkillington at 9:42 PM on July 30, 2013

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