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Ear - Pulling At or Rubbing


  • A child who pulls, tugs, pokes, rubs or itches the ear
  • Most ear pulling or touching is normal behavior (age 4-12 months)
  • No crying or report of ear pain

Causes of Ear Pulling

  • Habit. Main cause in infants. Normal touching and pulling with discovery of ears. This is usually not seen before 4 months of age. Usually not seen after 12 months old. By then, they have more interesting things to do.
  • Earwax. The main cause in older children is a piece of earwax. This earwax buildup is usually caused by putting cotton swabs in the ear canal. Until the teen years, cotton swabs are wider than the ear canal. Therefore, they just push the earwax back in.
  • Soap. Another cause of an itchy ear canal is soap or other irritants. Soap or shampoo can get trapped in the ear canal after showers.
  • Ear Infection. Children with ear infections act sick. They present with an earache or unexplained crying.
  • Rubbing the ear is common in younger children (under age 2 or 3). Simple ear pulling without other symptoms such as fever or crying is harmless. These children rarely have an ear infection.

When To Call

Call Doctor or Seek Care Now

  • Fever higher than 104° F (40° C)
  • Fever in baby less than 12 weeks old. Caution: do NOT give your baby any fever medicine before being seen.
  • Your child looks or acts very sick
  • You think your child needs to be seen, and the problem is urgent

Contact Doctor Within 24 Hours

  • Seems to be in pain (or is crying)
  • Starts to wake up from sleep
  • Fever or symptoms of a cold are present
  • Drainage from the ear canal
  • Frequent digging inside 1 ear canal
  • You think your child needs to be seen, but the problem is not urgent

Contact Doctor During Office Hours

  • Pulling at or rubbing the ear lasts more than 3 days
  • Itching lasts more than 1 week
  • You have other questions or concerns

Self Care at Home

  • Normal ear touching or pulling
  • Itchy ear canal

Care Advice

What You Should Know About Ear Rubbing:

  • Most infants have discovered their ears and are playing with them.
  • Some have an itchy ear canal.
  • Earwax buildup is the most common cause. Most wax problems are caused by putting cotton swabs in the ear canal.
  • Ear pulling can start when your child has a cold. It can be caused by fluid in the middle ear. Less often, it's caused by an ear infection. If this is the case, your child will develop other symptoms. Look for fever or increased crying.
  • Ear pulling without other symptoms is not a sign of an ear infection.
  • Here is some care advice that should help.

Habit Type of Ear Rubbing:

  • If touching the ear is a new habit, ignore it.
  • This helps prevent your child from doing it for attention.

Cotton Swabs - Do Not Use:

  • Cotton swabs can push earwax back and cause a plug.
  • Earwax has a purpose. It protects the lining of the ear canal.
  • Earwax also comes out on its own.
  • Cotton swabs should never be used before the teen years. Reason: they are wider than the ear canal.

Keep Soap Out of the Ears:

  • Keep soap and shampoo out of the ear canal.
  • Reason: makes the ears itchy.

White Vinegar Eardrops:

  • For an itchy ear canal, you can use half-strength white vinegar. Make this by mixing the vinegar with equal parts warm water.
  • Place 2 drops in each ear canal once daily.
  • Do this for three days.
  • Reason: restores the normal acid pH.
  • Caution: do not use eardrops if your child has ear drainage or ear tubes. Also, do not use if your child has a hole in eardrum.

What to Expect:

  • With this treatment, most itching is gone in 2 or 3 days.

Call Your Doctor If:

  • Rubbing the ear lasts more than 3 days
  • Itching of ear lasts more than 1 week
  • You think your child needs to be seen
  • Your child becomes worse


Barton Schmitt MD, FAAP
Disclaimer: this health information is for educational purposes only. You, the reader, assume full responsibility for how you choose to use it.
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