You may’ve heard that the average human swallows several spiders a year in their sleep (totally false, per Britannica) — but what happens when a spider makes its way into your ear?
The answer to that question is the focus of a new case study in the New England Journal of Medicine, which follows a 64-year-old woman who started hearing “abnormal sounds” in her left ear.
The case study explains that the woman was having trouble sleeping for four days and hearing strange noises. These included “incessant beating, clicking and rustling sounds,” as well as “the feeling of a creature moving insider her left ear,” per the case study.
“She didn’t feel pain because the spider was very small,” Dr. Tengchin Wang, co-author and director of the otolaryngology department at Tainan Municipal Hospital, told NBC News, adding that the spider was about one-tenth of an inch.
He said the woman’s case was novel because he’d never seen an insect molt inside an ear canal before. Previously, he’d seen ants, moths, cockroaches and mosquitoes in people’s ears.
When the woman went to an ear, nose and throat clinic in Taiwan, a physical exam revealed a small spider moving in her external auditory canal and that it had even shed an exoskeleton. The external auditory canal connects the outer ear to the inner and middle ear. Her tympanic membrane, which separates the outer ear from the middle ear, was totally normal, according to the report.
A suction cannula place into an otoscope (the device that goes into your ear in ear exams) was used to remove the spider because it was quite small. For bigger creatures in the ear, they usually needed to be killed before they can be taken out to avoid further damage to the ear, the researchers explained.
Once the spider was removed, the woman’s symptoms stopped.
How common is it to have a spider in your ear?
The real question that the case study prompts is … can this happen to you? Experts told NBC News that an insect (or spider) working its way into a human’s ear is unusual but can happen.
Dr. David Kasle, a physician at ENT Sinus and Allergy of South Florida, who wasn’t involved in the research, told NBC News the average ENT doctor will encounter “tens, if not more, of bugs or some sort of arthropod” in patients’ ears over their career.
Other reports of bugs in people’s ears include a Japanese beetle and 14-year-old girl in Pennsylvania from 2020, and a tick in a 9-year-old Connecticut boy’s eardrum in 2019. A previous study estimated insects make up almost one-fifth of foreign objects found in ears.
Most of Dr. Stacey Ishman’s patients with bugs inside their ears had gone camping beforehand, the otolaryngology instructor at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health told NBC News. She’s seen eight patients with bugs in their ears.
Symptoms of a bug inside your ear
The symptoms described by the woman in the case study include:
- Beating sounds
- Clicking sounds
- Rustling sounds
- The feeling of something crawling in your ear
“There’s an extremely sensitive, thin layer of skin that lines the ear canal,” Kasle said. “Because of its sensitivity, you’re obviously going to feel the crawling sensation, a tickle sensation that is almost unbearable.”
How to remove a bug inside your ear
If you think you have a bug in your ear, don’t stick your finger or a Q-tip inside because it could shove it further in. Don’t try to remove it with tweezers or anything else because it could damage your ear.
Safer options include pouring vegetable oil, olive oil or baby oil into the ear, which could drown it or slide it out, or tilting your ear down and shaking your head, which could help the bug get out by itself.
“Most of the time the ear is completely fine,” Ishman said. “If there’s some injury to the ear canal, quite honestly it’s more often from people trying to get it out than it is from the bug itself.”
If you do have an insect inside your ear, consult a health care professional, even if you’re able to remove it on your own, to make sure the bug didn’t leave anything behind.
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