The ear canal is a small, tube-like pathway that extends from the outer ear to the eardrum. In addition to helping a person hear, the ear canal has many other functions, such as protecting the delicate inner ear from bacteria and dirt, and warming air before it enters the inner ear.
A range of health problems can affect this sensitive area, including infection, inflammation, and injury.
Read on to learn more about the ear canal, its anatomy, and some of the health conditions that can affect it.
The ear canal, or auditory canal, is a tube that runs from the outer ear to the eardrum.
The ear has outer, middle, and inner portions. The ear canal and outer cartilage of the ear make up the outer ear. The ear canal transports sound from the outer ear to the eardrum, which is in the middle ear.
The ear canal is fairly exposed to the environment. That is why it protects itself with many specialized glands, which produce earwax, or cerumen.
The sticky earwax prevents insects, dust, and debris from entering the sensitive middle ear through the ear canal. It also repels water, protecting the ear canal and eardrum from damage.
The ear cleans itself by moving the wax gradually out of the ear canal, carrying any debris with it. The wax then dries and falls out of the ear, typically in small flakes.
Many people experience itchy ears at some point. Although they may find it bothersome, this symptom does not typically indicate a serious problem.
Various conditions can contribute to itchy ears, including:
In some cases, allergies can cause itchy ears. For example, food allergies, allergic rhinitis, and allergies to substances such as hair spray could cause the ears to itch.
Food allergies occur when the body’s immune system reacts to specific foods as if they were harmful pathogens, such as parasites or bacteria. By contrast, allergic rhinitis can be due to pollen or dust mite allergies.
If an allergen is causing itching inside the ears, identifying and avoiding it can reduce symptoms. A person can also take over-the-counter (OTC) antihistamines.
Some skin conditions, such as psoriasis and eczema, can affect the ear.
Psoriasis is an inflammatory condition that causes raised plaques on the skin that can sting, itch, or burn.
Eczema is a group of conditions that cause patches of inflamed, itchy skin. Ear eczema may cause flaky, dry skin around the ear canal, as well as swelling.
The ear canal can become blocked by swelling, pus, earwax, and foreign objects.
If too much earwax collects in the ear canal, it can cause an obstruction. Sometimes, this results from cotton swab use. Pushing cotton swabs into the ear can compact earwax and push it farther inside the ear, causing a blockage.
People can often treat earwax blockages using olive oil drops, or medicated drops from a pharmacy. Sometimes, however, treatment from a doctor is necessary to remove the accumulated wax.
Ear canal swelling can be due to swimmer’s ear. This is the common name for an ear canal infection that a person can acquire while swimming. However, people who spend a lot of time outdoors can contract the infection as well.
Bacteria, and occasionally fungi, can cause swimmer’s ear. The symptoms
- inflammation in the ear canal
- discharge from the ear
Doctors usually treat this condition with antibiotic eardrops.
Surfer’s ear causes bony growths to appear in the ear canal.
The only way to treat surfer’s ear is to remove the growths via surgery. People can help prevent the condition by wearing special earplugs while in the water.
Many other conditions can develop in the ear canal, such as:
An abscess is a lump that contains pus. Abscesses can develop spontaneously or as a result of an infection. Symptoms of an abscess in the ear canal include:
- temporary hearing loss
- a feeling of pressure or fullness in the ear
To treat an abscess, a doctor creates a small incision on the abscess to drain it. A person will then need antibiotic drops.
Narrowing of the ear canal
In some people, the ear canal can narrow. Doctors call this stenosis of the external auditory canal.
People can have this condition from birth or acquire it later in life. Among potential causes
Treatment can include surgery to repair and widen the ear canal.
A cholesteatoma is a noncancerous growth that can develop in the ear canal, although this is uncommon.
While people can have cholesteatomas from birth, they usually develop over time, typically following repeated infections.
Cholesteatomas can expand and block the ear canal, erode the bone of the ear canal, as well as cause chronic infections.
Cholesteatomas can lead to various problems and complications. That is why doctors usually opt to remove them through a small surgical procedure.
Conductive hearing loss
Conductive hearing loss is a form of hearing impairment that involves the outer ear. Any type of obstruction in the ear canal, including stenosis, growths, and infections, can be a potential cause of the condition.
Signs of hearing loss include difficulty understanding spoken words, especially in a crowd or with a lot of background noise. People may also experience a gradual muffling or dulling of sounds.
For some, it is possible to remove the cause of the obstruction and restore hearing. Others may benefit from implants that deliver sound to the eardrum.
People can care for their ears and reduce the risk of developing common ear canal conditions by following some simple steps. These include:
- Gentle cleaning: When cleaning the ear, it is important to clean the outer part only. A person should not push objects such as cotton swabs into the ear. It is normal to have some earwax inside the ear canal, as the ear uses wax to clean itself.
- Protection from water: If a person regularly swims, surfs, or does other water sports, they need to protect the ears from bacteria and cold, wet conditions. They should wear protective hoods or earplugs and carefully dry the ears after getting out of the water.
- Eardrops: If a person has a buildup of earwax, they can use olive oil or almond oil eardrops to soften the wax. People may also be able to purchase OTC medicated eardrops for minor ailments, such as mild infections.
A person should consult a doctor promptly if they are experiencing any of the following symptoms in the ears:
- persistent itching
- a feeling of pressure or fullness
- hearing loss
People should not attempt to remove blockages manually at home. If eardrops do not help soften impacted earwax, they should seek medical attention.
A healthcare professional will know how to remove the accumulated wax without risking hearing loss or damage to the ear canal.
The ear consists of three distinct areas: the outer, middle, and inner ear. The ear canal, which is part of the outer ear, is a tube that connects the cartilage on the outside of the ear to the eardrum.
Many conditions can affect the ear canal, including infections, earwax blockages, and skin disorders, such as eczema. If a person experiences any symptoms, a doctor can diagnose the cause and recommend the best treatment.
People should not insert any objects, including cotton swabs, into the ear canal.