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Here's Why Your Ears Are Always Itchy As Fuck

*Has Q-tips shoved in both ears.*

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Well, I'm here to tell you exactly what's making your ears so itchy and how to properly treat it, without making it worse.

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Experiencing itchy ears is incredibly common, and it's not particular to just one species — in case you haven't noticed, dogs and cats are literally always scratching their ears, too. So I spoke with Dr. Erich Voigt, clinical associate professor in the Department of Otolaryngology at NYU Langone Health, and Dr. Ana Kim, director of otologic research at Columbia University Medical Center, to get to the bottom of what the hell causes insatiably itchy ears and to write this post for the common good.

Hopefully there's something in here that helps you, because from experience, I know how torturous itchy ears can be.

First things first: There's a protective layer of wax in your ear canals that is water-repellant and helps keep your ears clean.

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There's a natural waxy substance produced by the glands in our ears called cerumen. It mixes with the oil and moisture in our ear canals to create a protective layer that lines the skin of the ear canal, and actually acts like a barrier against dirt and bacteria, while also keeping the skin from drying out, Voigt says.

The water-repellant and slightly acidic wax also helps to decrease bacterial growth and prevent water from getting trapped in your ear canals. It's different from the ear wax that everyone wants to remove, he explains.

And regardless of how gentle you are, when you push things inside of your ears, you're most likely scraping at or getting rid of that waxy layer.

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"In my experience, the most common cause of itchy ears is Iatrogenic mechanical manipulation, which is when people insert weird things into their ears (i.e., Q-tips, bobby pins, fingers, etc.) and scrape around causing trauma," says Kim. "Your outer ear canals have natural defenses that help keep them clean and prevent infection, and if you interfere with them, you're going to run into problems."

"If people are using Q-tips on a regular basis, they're removing the wax lining from their ear canals, taking away that protective layer," Voigt says. "It's most likely to happen if you're cleaning your ears often and very vigorously. But even if you use them gently, it's a delicate layer and could still be removed."

Removing this wax layer will make you more susceptible to a buildup of bacteria and debris, which could cause irritation and potentially lead to infection.

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Without the protective layer, your ears have a much harder time defending themselves against dirt, bacteria, and water, making them more susceptible to intense irritation and sometimes outer ear infections.

"When you use things like Q-tips you're actually damaging the superficial skin that's there to protect you," Kim says. "So now the skin is left exposed, and it's more susceptible to allergens, shampoos, soap, water, etc. Also all of us have bacteria on our skin, so when there's a little break in that skin barrier from trauma, bacteria can invade into that breakage, sometimes causing infection."

Accidentally scraping away that protective layer can also make you feel like you have water trapped in your ear.

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Patients sometimes report that the insides of their ears feel wet, but that they haven't gone swimming recently and it's not correlated to showering, Kim says. "The thing is, if the inflammation (swelling and tenderness) is severe, your consistent itching could slough off the top layer of your ear canal skin, and the layer beneath (the subdermal layer) is moist, which makes patients experience an uncomfortable wet sensation.

Patients are also more likely to experience "wetness" because that protective waxy layer isn't there to repel water and/or help water in the ear canal evaporate away or spill out of the ear.

If you're concerned with getting water out of your ear, Voigt says you can try prescribed ear drops or a homemade 50% vinegar, 50% alcohol solution. Just apply a couple of drops of the solution in the ear that's bothering you. The alcohol will help evaporate the water, and the acidity from the vinegar will keep bacteria from growing.

That's why doctors recommend you don't putting anything in your ears at all, and instead get your ears professionally cleaned every six months.

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Both Voigt and Kim agree that it's okay to use Q-tips to swab the outer rim of your ear, but to never put the Q-tip into your ear canal — even for itching or cleaning purposes — because there is no absolute safe way to use one. Both have seen cases where patients have used Q-tips and accidentally punctured their eardrum, or gotten Q-tip pieces lodged in their ear canals.

If you deal with swollen, clogged, or irritated ears, they both recommend going to see an ear, nose, and throat doctor (ENT) every six months for a regular checkup and professional cleaning until your ears become healthy again.

If your ear is really itchy and you want immediate relief, try pressing down on your tragus, or take an antihistamine.

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"Pumping down on the tragus (pushing it against the back of your ear) will help you a feel relief similar to if you were scratching the inside of the ear canal," Kim says. "That's because it's closing and reopening the ear canal, which applies pressure and friction. This is the safest immediate way to get rid of itching."

If this doesn't help, she recommends taking an antihistamine to ease the itching, or visiting your local ENT so they can prescribe you specific ear drops.

But if your ears are affecting your day-to-day life, you should see an ENT because it could be an infection, like swimmer's ear, which you need antibiotics to treat.

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If you're constantly poking at your ears, creating penetrable cuts and damaging the wax secretion process, or you simply remove all of that protective wax layer, it's going to make you much more prone to getting bacterial and fungal outer ear infections, Voigt says.

He explains that a very common situation is when people are exposed to contaminated water that contains bacteria and fungus (in swimming pools, lakes, oceans). That water gets stuck in their inflamed/irritated ears and tips the balance of bad bacteria vs. good bacteria, resulting in an outer ear infection known as swimmer's ear.

"If it's a fungal or bacterial infection, you'll need the antifungal and antibacterial ear drops, which we can easily prescribe for you," he says. "Although it's not common, sometimes it could be a more serious situation if it's someone who has immune system problems or is diabetic. It's better to be safe than sorry, so just make sure you're always getting checked out so we get you the proper treatment."

There are a few other common causes of ear irritation that can be easily treated.

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Probably one of the other most common causes is allergies, Kim says. Sometimes people with allergies will have itchy throats and itchy eyes, as well as itchy ears. If you're experiencing this, you should go to the doctor and have it checked out to determine if it is an allergic reaction, and if so, get an allergy test to see what's causing the reaction. She also says there are the people who have skin conditions, like psoriasis and eczema, which can actually show up in the ear canal's skin.

Voigt says he's also seen itchiness and irritation that's resulted from patients who've had hair in their ears from getting a haircut or having a pet, and people who genetically have dry, flaky ear wax that gets stuck in their ear canals. The best way to address both of these issues is to get that stuff professionally removed by an ENT.

People who have hearing aids or in-ear headphones can develop contact dermatitis (skin rash and irritation) or an allergic reaction to the material of the product. So be careful to use products with materials you're not allergic to, and always wipe them down before, during, and after using to monitor for sweat and bacteria.

Here's the bottom line: The way you use Q-tips could be causing or increasing all your itchy ear woes. So try your best to resist the urge! Your ears will definitely thank you.

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