Parasites are tiny organisms that attach themselves to larger organisms, such as human organs, in order to live. Parasites live off the nutrients provided by their host and leave behind waste and toxins, which may not only cause pain, but also create more devastating health consequences if left untreated. Ears are one of the most vulnerable host organs because they offer easy access, yet may go undetected because infestations mimic common ear infection symptoms.
Most ear parasites are not really classified as parasites at all, meaning they don't meet all the requirements of the genus. True parasites, for all practical purposes, complete their life cycle attached to the host--growing, reproducing, then dying. The majority of ear parasites fall into the predatory insect category, which have a limited life span. The most common of these is the mite, which feeds on blood and leaves behind fecal matter that causes an allergic reaction in most humans. It is the allergic reaction that causes pain, swelling and itching in the ear rather than the bite itself. While animals may suffer from specific ear mites, it is uncommon for humans to contract them but, should it occur, they are considered harmless.
Ticks, which may find their way to the ear during outdoor activities, not only feed on blood, but they also transmit other bacteria that can spread through the human circulation system, causing neurological damage, such as Lyme disease. Ticks are not particular to where they burrow to feed and are hard to detect in an orifice such as the ear. While there may be no topical symptoms indicating the presence of a tick, if it carries the Lyme disease bacteria, symptoms can include severe muscle aches and fatigue.
Less commonly found, but still a pain-causing and potentially harmful parasite found in the ear is fly eggs. Many species of flies lay eggs on humans that can develop into parasitic larvae such as the human bot and primary screwworm. While the fly itself does not attach itself to human organs, its eggs, when developed to the larvae stage, may crawl through the ear opening and burrow into the ear's warm tissue. The cattle grub is also a type of fly maggot that resides on the hairs of a host, including human ear hairs, but is relatively harmless and not painful.
The most common symptoms of an ear parasite are itching and swelling of either the inside or outside of the ear. These symptoms can be caused by a parasite biting or feeding on the blood of the skin surrounding the ear or the organs inside the ear or as a result of an allergic reaction to its fecal matter. The ear may turn red and become inflamed or swollen as the irritation continues or from excessive scratching of the infected area.
In some cases, the bite from a parasitic insect such as a chigger may cause a welt or rash that is left behind once the parasite has departed. In parasitic larvae or maggots, it may take up to a year to experience symptoms, which could range anywhere from a rash to an open wound to intense pain as the larvae mature inside human tissue.
Most of the common parasite conditions, such bites from mites and chiggers, can be treated with creams and lotions to ease the symptoms. Some mite infestations need to be treated with a delousing chemical. For the most part, antihistamine or anti-itch ointments prescribed by a doctor are the only treatment needed.
For more invasive parasite infections, such as ticks and various larvae, extraction and antibiotic treatment are needed, depending on the bacteria transmitted by the parasite. Only a doctor who specializes in parasitic medicine can determine the extent of infection and needed treatment in the instance of ticks and larvae that can spread to other parts of the body, including the central nervous system and gastrointestinal tracts.