Q. I’ve heard stories about cockroaches getting into peoples’ ears, but I thought those were just old folklore and not really true. But a friend has a friend that it really happened to. Or, is she lying?
A. It’s not just an “old wives tale.” A cockroach in the ear is more common than you would imagine. Emergency room physicians in a big city may remove several cockroaches a week from patients’ ears!
Before you freak out, there are a few qualifiers. For this to happen to you, you would have to be living or sleeping (most events happen while the person is asleep) in a place with a heavy cockroach infestation, and then have the misfortune of meeting up with a particularly adventurous roach. Cockroaches don’t just go looking for a human ear to inhabit. Cockroaches end up in ears because they literally stumble upon them during their wanderings, and being cockroaches who like small, dark spaces, they check it out. Unfortunately, they’re not so good at the concept of backing out. They tend to move farther into the ear, and may eventually get stuck.
I have never had a cockroach in my ear, but from reading victim’s accounts and physician’s accounts, I can report that it involves excruciating pain. Multiply a bad ear ache by 10. Those scratchy little cockroach legs moving against your eardrum is what causes the intense pain. That pain is usually why people end up in the emergency room. Most don’t even know that a cockroach is involved.
One medical school professor told his class of students that, as an emergency room physician, he had performed hundreds of ear examinations on patients with ear pain. He was used to seeing redness and wax buildup, but was not prepared to come eyeball to eyeball with a cockroach during an exam. Upon seeing the cockroach magnified and lit up with his otoscope, he was so shocked that he jumped back, fell over a chair and ended up on the floor, causing his patient to become hysterical.
So you have a cockroach in your ear; what then? How do you get that roach out of your ear? You can try just pulling it out with forceps, but that is definitely not recommended because of the risk of damage to your ear. You can’t spray your ear with Raid® or other roach sprays. That’s dangerous. One old medical standby is to simply drown the ear canal and the bug in mineral oil. But the struggling of the cockroach before it dies can cause even more pain for the patient. One emergency room doctor joked that his favorite cockroach removal method was to smear the opposite ear with bacon grease and wait for the bug to get hungry! That aside, you should definitely get yourself and your cockroach to a medical facility for expert treatment.
In one unusual case, doctors in New Orleans treated a patient with a cockroach in each ear. This gave them the opportunity to test two different removal methods. One ear canal got the standard application of mineral oil. After a valiant struggle, the cockroach died but then had to be carefully removed from the ear with forceps. In the other ear canal, the doctors sprayed lidocaine, an anesthetic heart drug. According to a doctor in attendance, “the roach exited the canal at a convulsive rate of speed and attempted to escape across the floor.” An intern stepped on it. The doctors concluded that lidocaine was the better method. Science in action!