by Dr Hannah Newton
Each day in the UK, 6 or 7 people – mainly children – undergo a medical procedure to remove a foreign object from the ear canal, with an annual cost to the NHS of around £2.8 million. In the majority of cases, the offending items are small inanimate objects, such as buttons, beads, or parts from toys, but very occasionally, something live enters the ear – a creepy crawly! If you’re feeling brave, you can watch on youtube the very moment when a waxy spider, earwig, or cockroach emerges from an unsuspecting ear.
The Flea and the Louse. The diagram of the flea is after Robert Hooke; Wellcome Collection CC BY.
Four hundred years ago, these ear-invading insects were ubiquitous. Early modern medical texts and housewifery manuals are replete with tips for how to keep one’s bed free from fleas and bedbugs, along with signs of what to look – or listen – out for when an insect ‘has crept into the Head whilst you sleep’. Felix Platter (1536–1614), a Swiss physician, wrote in his chapter on the ‘hurts of the hearing’, that if a ‘quick thing’ – insect – ‘creeps into the eare’, you will hear a ‘very troublesome’ sound, ‘like the flying of a Butterfly’. He added that if the bug is a large ‘Worm with many legs’, it may ‘wholly stop up the Ear’, making the patient deaf.
Nowadays, the usual method for removing an insect is to first kill it with the anesthetic lidocaine, and then to wash it out with warm water, or extract it with small pinchers or a suction catheter. In the early modern period, a wider variety of techniques were used, some of which seem to show a surprising regard for the preferences of the insect as well as the patient! Below are 7 of my favourites.