Is this cause for concern?

You may have heard stories about bugs getting in ears. This is a rare occurrence. In most cases, a bug will enter your ear when you’re sleeping while outdoors, like when you’re camping. Otherwise, a bug may fly into your ear while you’re awake, typically while you’re working or running outside.

The insect may die while inside your ear. But it’s also possible that the bug remains alive and tries to burrow its way outside of your ear. This can be painful, irritating, and worrisome.

While a bug in your ear will typically be harmless, further complications can and do arise. Always remove the insect or have it removed as quickly as possible.

What are the symptoms?

If the insect is still alive while in your ear, the buzzing and movement of the bug is oftentimes both loud and painful. Depending on what the insect does to your ear while inside, such as piercing or biting, you’ll most likely experience pain, inflammation, and irritation.

The tissues of the ear canal and eardrum are innervated by cranial nerves. This means that injury or irritation to this area is incredibly disruptive. Additionally, there can be:

  • redness
  • swelling
  • discharge from the ear, including blood or pus, that signals injury to the ear

While adults can readily enough identify an insect with its buzzing and movements, it can be much more difficult for young children to determine the cause of pain in their ear. If you see young children rubbing or scratching one of their ears, this may be a sign of a bug inside the ear canal.

How to remove the bug

An important part of the removal process for a bug in your ear is to remain calm. Try removing the bug from the ear canal at home at first. Don’t use a cotton swab or other probing object. It can push the insect farther into the ear and potentially damage the middle ear or eardrum.

It helps to gently pull the back of the ear toward the back of the head to straighten out the ear canal. Then, shaking your head — not hitting it — may dislodge the insect from the ear.

If the insect is still alive, you can pour vegetable oil or baby oil into the ear canal. This will usually kill the bug. If you suspect the bug is dead, you may be able to flush it out of the ear using warm water and a syringe.

However, if you or your child has a history of ear problems, it’s important to go to the doctor right away if you suspect there’s a bug in the ear.

Because insects can scratch and damage the eardrum, it’s also very important to seek out a doctor’s help immediately if you can’t remove the insect yourself.

The doctor — usually an ear, nose, and throat specialist (ENT) or someone working in the emergency room — will use something called an otoscope to peer within the ear and determine if it is indeed an insect. They may use modified tweezers or forceps to grab the insect and remove it from the ear. Alternatively, they may use gentle suction or flush the ear canal with warm water and a catheter. Children may need to be sedated during this process.

If oil was unsuccessful in killing the insect, doctors will typically use lidocaine, an anesthetic, to successfully kill the bug before flushing it out. It’s possible that your doctor will prescribe you antibiotics if there’s severe damage done to the ear canal.

Are there complications?

The most common complication from an insect in the ear is a ruptured tympanic membrane, or ruptured eardrum.

If the bug bites or scratches the eardrum, it’s possible that this trauma to the ear affects the eardrum. If this happens, you’ll feel pain and typically see bloody discharge coming from the eardrum. You may also not be able to hear as well. Unfortunately, this can occur even if the doctor is able to remove the insect soon after it enters the ear.

If the insect isn’t removed completely, it’s possible that an infection of the ear can occur as well.

Prevention tips

Though there are no foolproof ways to prevent a bug from entering your ear, you can keep your bedroom and other sleeping areas clean to avoid attracting insects to the area. When camping, wearing bug repellent and completely sealing your tent can also help prevent insects from entering your ear. Check out other tips for safely spending time outdoors, especially with children.