It usually starts after you go for a swim. Or get too much water in your ear in the shower. At first it’s just a tickle, but after a while your ear starts to itch – really itch -- as if you’ve got a mosquito bite inside of it. Or worse yet, a mosquito.
Welcome to the wonderful world of swimmer’s ear.
“Nine out of ten time times, it’ll be fine,” says Julie Levitch, a 41-year-old marketing professional from Scottsdale, Ariz., who’s had the condition about 20 or 25 times during her life. “But about 10 percent of the time, the itch will turn into full-blown swimmer’s ear which is incredibly painful. If you tug on your earlobe, it’s excruciating. If you hold a phone to your ear, it hurts.”
Officially known as otitis externa, swimmer’s ear is a low-grade infection of the outer ear canal that causes itchiness, pain, ear pluggage and drainage,” says Dr. Vincent Chan, an ear, nose and throat specialist at Swedish-Ballard Hospital in Seattle.
The problem is fairly common, says Chan, but it’s not the only thing that makes people’s ears itch. Allergies to various foods such as apples, bananas or dairy can also trigger the itch that cannot be scratched.
“Essentially it’s referred pain from the back of the nose and throat,” he says. “There’s a lot of cross-wiring between the throat, nose and ear. A lot of things that irritate the throat, irritate the ear.”
People with itchy ears due to allergic reactions can usually find relief with over-the-counter antihistamines like Benadryl, Zyrtec or Claritin.
As for swimmer’s ear, if it’s a full-blown infection – i.e., you’ve got pain and drainage and hearing loss -- Chan advises a visit to your doctor, who may need to prescribe antibiotics. If the ear is simply itchy, though, skip the Q-tips – which can push the infection further into the ear -- and treat it with a few drops of mineral oil or an easily home-made concoction of equal parts white vinegar and rubbing alcohol.
“Just put a few drops in each ear with an eye dropper and that dries the ear out,” says Chan. “Do it after you swim if you regularly get water in your ears.”
Some people may fear that an itchy ear is the result of a wayward insect.
“That very rarely happens,” Chan says. “But if it does, you’ll feel the bug moving around in there. They’re pretty active but they can’t cause serious damage. People are always concerned about them laying eggs and then having them go into your brain.”
Thank the infamous Night Gallery episode, “The Caterpillar” for this nightmare. In the show, an earwig eats its way through a man’s brain and eventually comes out the other side (but not before laying dozens of eggs).
That can absolutely not happen, Chan insists.
“They can’t lay eggs or go into the brain - the ear drum blocks the way,” he says. If you think you have a creepy crawly thing in your ear, go right for a few drops of mineral oil.
“That will drown the bug,” he says.