• Tue
  • Apr 22, 2014
  • Updated: 1:17am

FYI: Do bugs really crawl into people's ears? How can you get them out?

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 30 March, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 30 March, 2008, 12:00am

A large part of the widely shared phobia of creepy-crawlies has to do with them turning up in unsuspected places, such as shoes or plates of food. And few images are more nightmarish than a bug somehow managing to find its way into a human ear and getting stuck or (worse) deciding to lay eggs there, a situation regularly deployed in television shows and films to maximise audience discomfort. But does this ever happen?

The bad news is, yes, bugs of many shapes and sizes occasionally do crawl into people's ears. One of the more famous accounts of this comes from 19th-century British explorer John Hanning Speke, who, on an expedition to locate the source of the River Nile, had a 'horrid' little beetle crawl into his ear canal while he was struggling to sleep in his tent. All attempts to extract it only drove it in further, until it was burrowing into his eardrum 'like a rabbit in a hole'. Speke first tried to flush the beetle out with melted butter then, when that didn't work, to jab at it with a penknife. That killed the bug but also damaged the explorer's ear to such an extent that in a few weeks an infection had spread from his ear canal to his nasal cavity, distorting his face and almost causing him to go deaf. Speke swore he was still picking bits of the beetle out of his earwax six months after the incident.

Plenty of ear invasions have been recorded more recently. A nine-year-old boy in Albany, New York, in the US, turned up at a doctor's office with not one, but two spiders in his left ear; while he didn't find their residence especially painful, the faint popping sound he heard whenever the spiders went for a stroll had been keeping him awake at night. In Wisconsin, also in the US, a beetle crawled deep into the ear of a high-school football star, nearly derailing his career. An unlucky woman in Scotland put up with a 2-inch moth living (and dying) in her ear over four days.

It's all very unsettling but while such events do happen, they're certainly not common - and the dangers associated with having an insect in your ear are grossly exaggerated. There are no verifiable accounts of bugs successfully reproducing in human ears, and simple physiology would prevent even the most excitable insect from burrowing through an ear into somewhere more sensitive, like the brain - there's too much bone in the way. Even earwigs - so named because the long, flat insects apparently favour human heads as a nesting ground - are unjustly maligned; they are no more likely to invade the ear than any other bug.

In the unlikely event that something flies, crawls or creeps into your auditory canal, experts agree on one course of action - don't panic. There are a variety of 'home' remedies to this problem - wait for the creature to make its own way out; shine a light into the ear in the hope the bug will be drawn towards it; sticking a blade of grass into the ear to give the insect a bridge to the outside world. Medical experts, however, caution against putting any foreign objects in the ear - recall what happened to Speke - and advise anyone who's carrying around an unwelcome visitor to head for a hospital, where insects can usually be extracted with a suction pump or forceps, or flushed out with warm water, mineral oil and (if they're being stubborn) anaesthetic.

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