Ear Itching

Medically Reviewed By William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
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What is ear itching?

Ear itching is a tickling, irritating sensation accompanied by the persistent need to scratch your ear. Redness, swelling, soreness, flaking and scarring may occur in the area of itchiness. The medical term for itchiness is pruritus. Although scratching may temporarily relieve your symptoms, it can cause more irritation or lead to an infection. With most cases of itching, it is best to refrain from scratching and leave the area alone to heal.

Itching can be a symptom of ear infection. A common ear infection is otitis externa, commonly known as swimmer’s ear, which can occur when moisture remains in the ear after swimming or other exposure to water. Other possible causes of ear itching include insect bites, contact allergies, and trauma. Wounds that are healing often start to itch as a sign of improvement. Chickenpox, an extremely common childhood illness, is accompanied by red, oozing blisters that cause intense itching. Eczema, contact dermatitis, scabies, and ringworm are other sources of itching.

Itching that is sudden, severe or unusual should be evaluated by your health care provider. Itching caused by a serious food allergy can come on rapidly, with a strong need to scratch. This type of itching may be symptomatic of a serious anaphylactic reaction, which impairs breathing; causes swelling, fainting and vomiting; and is considered a medical emergency.

Sudden itching can be a sign of anaphylaxis, a severe, life-threatening allergic reaction to a food, chemical, or insect sting. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if ear itching is accompanied by serious symptoms that include swelling of the face or constriction of the throat, difficulty breathing, fainting, or a change in level of consciousness or alertness.

What other symptoms might occur with ear itching?

Ear itching may be accompanied by other symptoms, depending on the underlying disease, disorder or condition. Certain conditions that cause ear itching may also involve other body systems.

Related localized symptoms that may occur along with ear itching

Ear itching may be accompanied by other localized symptoms including:

  • Crusting or flaking skin
  • Drainage or discharge from the ear
  • Rash
  • Redness, warmth or swelling
  • Tenderness or pain

Other symptoms that may occur along with ear itching

Ear itching may accompany symptoms related to other body systems including:

Serious symptoms that might indicate a life-threatening condition

In some cases, ear itching may occur with other symptoms that might indicate a serious condition that should be evaluated immediately in an emergency setting. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you, or someone you are with, have ear itching along with other serious symptoms including:

  • Change in level of consciousness or alertness, such as passing out or unresponsiveness

  • Respiratory or breathing problems, such as shortness of breath, difficulty breathing or inability to breathe, labored breathing, wheezing, or choking

  • Sudden swelling of the face, lips or tongue

  • Tightness or constriction in the throat

What causes ear itching?

Ear itching may have many possible causes, including allergens (agents that cause allergies), infections, autoimmune disorders, or other causes, such as stress.

Allergic causes of ear itching

Ear itching could be an allergic reaction to any of the following:

  • Certain foods

  • Cosmetics, dyes or detergents

  • Industrial chemicals, such as those found in elastic, latex or rubber

  • Metals such as those used in jewelry

  • Poison ivy or oak

  • Stings or bites

Infectious causes of ear itching

Ear itching can also be caused by infections including:

  • Chickenpox
  • Ear infection
  • Ringworm
  • Strep throat (bacterial infection)

Skin disease causes of ear itching

Ear itching can also be caused by skin diseases that affect other parts of the body. These include:

  • Eczema (skin rash usually caused by allergic reactions)

  • Neurodermatitis (skin condition, the cause of which is not known, characterized by intense itching)

  • Psoriasis (chronic skin disease characterized by dry, scaly silvery patches)

Other causes of ear itching

Ear itching can be caused by other factors including:

  • Extreme cold or heat
  • Medications
  • Stress

Serious or life-threatening causes of ear itching

In some cases, ear itching may be a symptom of a serious or life-threatening condition that should be evaluated immediately in an emergency setting, such as anaphylaxis, a life-threatening allergic reaction.

Questions for diagnosing the cause of ear itching

To diagnose your condition, your doctor or licensed health care practitioner will ask you several questions related to your itching including:

  • When did your ear itching start?

  • Are you taking any medications?

  • Do you have any known allergies?

  • Do you feel otherwise healthy?

  • Have you tried any new products recently, such as soaps, perfumes or sprays?

  • Have you spent a lot of time outdoors lately?

  • Have you gone swimming or scuba diving recently?

  • Have you recently been in an airplane or done anything else that would have exposed you to sudden changes in altitude or air pressure?

  • Does scratching make it better or worse?

What are the potential complications of ear itching?

Ear itching is not usually serious, but it is important to determine the underlying cause in order to rule out a serious infection or allergic reaction. Once the underlying cause of your itching is diagnosed, it is important for you to follow the treatment plan that you and your health care professional design specifically for you to reduce the risk of potential complications related to the persistence or spread of infection including:

  • Cellulitis (infection of the skin and tissues)

  • Chronic otitis externa (persistent outer ear infection)

  • Necrotizing otitis externa (potentially life-threatening outer ear infection)

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2021 Jan 4
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THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
  1. Ear problems. FamilyDoctor.org. http://familydoctor.org/familydoctor/en/health-tools/search-by-symptom/ear-problems.html.
  2. Itching. Medline Plus, a service of the National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health. http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/itching.html.