If you’ve ever experienced a tickle in your ear, you know how annoying it can be. But a transient, ticklish feeling in the ear that goes away quickly and doesn’t return isn’t cause for concern.
But a consistent tickle that moves around or doesn’t go away might signal a condition that requires intervention at home — or medical support.
Keep reading to learn what might be causing a tickle in your ear.
Earwax (cerumen) is necessary for keeping your ears safe from dirt and bacteria. It also helps to clean and lubricate the ear canal.
Even though it’s necessary for ear health, earwax can sometimes build up in the ear, causing a blockage to form.
Some people report feeling a ticklish sensation when they have wax buildup in their ears. Other symptoms may include:
Preventing earwax buildup
Earwax blockages can sometimes happen if you try to clean your ears on your own with a cotton swab. Instead of getting the ear clean, this action often pushes earwax more deeply into the ear canal.
Instead of removing it yourself, you may be able to prevent earwax buildup by letting excess wax fall out of your ear on its own. You can also avoid it by only cleaning the outer areas of your ear, rather than inserting an object into the canal.
Treating earwax buildup
Wax removal should be done by your doctor. They may remove ear wax by:
- suctioning it out
- flushing out the wax with a warm-water syringe
- using a curved instrument called a curet to manually remove the wax
If wax buildup in the ear is a chronic problem, your doctor may recommend medicated ear drops for you to use on a consistent basis.
The dangers of ear candling
Some people use a treatment called ear candling to remove ear wax. This practice has been found to be ineffective for this purpose. It may also cause burns or injury to the ear, and should not be used.
The Eustachian tube is a passageway that connects your throat to your middle ear. When it is functioning correctly, the Eustachian tube keeps air pressure and fluid from building up in your ear.
Eustachian tube dysfunction occurs when this small passageway becomes plugged. Sinuses, infections, and allergies can all cause Eustachian tube dysfunction to occur.
A tickling sensation is a possible symptom of this condition. Other symptoms include:
- feeling of fullness in the ear or ears
- popping or clicking sensations
- ringing in the ears (tinnitus)
- muffled sound
- occasionally, a loss of balance
Preventing Eustachian tube dysfunction
Infants and children, smokers, and obese individuals have the highest risk for this condition.
Even if you are not in a high-risk category for Eustachian tube dysfunction, you can work to prevent it by treating colds, sinus infections, and the flu quickly, before they can cause an inner ear blockage to occur.
Treating Eustachian tube dysfunction
Reducing nasal congestion can help. Things to try include:
- saline nasal spray
- steroid nasal spray
- using a humidifier, vaporizer, or neti pot
- breathing in steam from a shower or bath
Stimulating the swallow reflex
Anything that stimulates the swallow reflex will help relieve the symptoms of this condition. Try:
- chewing gum
- breathing deeply through your nose and out of your mouth
- Valsalva maneuver (gently pinching your nostrils closed and blowing air out of your mouth while it is closed)
- sucking on a pacifier
In some cases, medical treatments may be needed to help open up the Eustachian tube. Your doctor may:
- make a small incision in the eardrum, and suction out fluid from the middle ear
- place a small tube in the eardrum so the fluid can drain out
- insert a balloon-like device into the Eustachian tube through the nose, creating a pathway for mucus to drain out of the ear
While uncommon, a bug can fly or crawl into your ear and stay there, causing a variety of sensations.
If the bug is crawling around, you may feel a tickling sensation. If the bug adheres itself inside your ear, bites, or stings, you may feel itching and pain.
Other symptoms may include:
- feeling of fullness in the ear
Preventing bugs in your ears
Getting a bug in your ear is more likely to occur if you have close contact with animals, or if you sleep outdoors.
If you think or suspect there is a bug in your ear, getting it out quickly is important. Bugs, such as ticks, can carry disease.
Like any foreign object that gets lodged in your ear, a bug can also irritate the cranial nerves that transmit information to the brain.
If a bug enters your ear, it is more likely to die or exit on its own than it is to stick around. If you’re concerned about getting a bug in your ear, covering up your ears is the best way to prevent it from happening.
How to remove a bug in your ear
Do not attempt to remove a bug in your ear with a sharp object, such as tweezers.
You should also not put any other object such as Q-tips into your ear. These might push the bug further back towards your eardrum.
Try flushing your ear out with a syringe of warm water:
- Tilt your head to one side, so that the affected ear is tilted downwards
- pull your outer ear in an upward and backward motion. This will straighten out the ear canal, making it easier to irrigate.
- Gently and slowly squirt warm water into your ear with a syringe.
- Let the water drain out.
- You can also try this technique with warm oil. This may help to kill the bug.
- If you don’t see the bug exit your ear, follow up with a doctor.
Tickling, tingling, itching, and pain in the ear are all symptoms that require a doctor’s input if they don’t resolve quickly at home.
Children especially might have a hard time distinguishing one sensation from the other. They may also have a difficult time communicating what they are feeling.
A doctor can examine the ear and determine the root cause of the sensation. They will also be able to prescribe medication or interventions that can alleviate discomfort.
Itching and tickling are different sensations, with differing, underlying causes.
The feeling of being tickled is known as knismesis. Tickling is commonly caused by a soft, tactile touch that stimulates the nerve endings of skin. It can be caused by many things, such as a person’s fingers, a feather brushing your skin, or a bug crawling on you.
Itching can be a symptom of allergies or disease. It can range from mild to severe, and it is never pleasant. Itching is often caused by an underlying chemical stimulant, such as histamine. It’s not commonly caused by tactile stimulation.
Tingling (paresthesia) is another sensation that can occur in the ear. It’s sometimes referred to as pins and needles.
Unlike tickling, which signals an increase in nerve ending stimulation, tingling can signal a decrease in nerve function.
A tingling sensation in your ear can be a symptom of a serious condition, especially if it precedes or occurs with ear numbness.
Tickling, itching, and tingling are all common symptoms that can occur in ears.
A tickling feeling in the ear may signal a condition, such as Eustachian tube dysfunction. Rarely, it may also mean that a bug has gotten inside of your ear.
Children can have a hard time explaining how their ears feel, making it challenging for parents to diagnose or treat. If your child complains of tickling in their ear, it’s best to see a doctor quickly.
If you feel tickling in your ear that doesn’t resolve on its own or with at-home treatments, you should also seek medical support.