Spend too long outside in the sunshine without adequate skin protection and you could end up with sunburnt ears. Usually your ears will feel warm and be tender, although moresevere sunburn can lead to blisters and the skin peeling. Remember that even on overcast days the UV rays of the sun can have a harmful effect on your skin. Your ears can also be burnt by over-exposure on tanning beds.
Mild sunburn can be treated with any over-the-counter aftersun cream or lotion, or the application of a cool, wet towel. More-serious sunburn should be checked with your doctor.
Embarrassed? Angry? Your ears may give you away, even if you hide your emotions. Intense emotional reactions can lead to an increase in blood flow to your ears, resulting in a reddening of the skin. Other causes can include vigorous exercise, spicy food, alcohol, temperature changes, hormonal changes, and some medical conditions.
Bacterial skin infection
When your skin is broken – from a cut or graze, an insect bite, a popped blister, a body piercing or whatever – bacteria can enter your body and put you at risk of skin infections. As well as other symptoms of infection such as headaches, fever or sore throat, your ears may become swollen and painful.
Red ear syndrome (RES)
What is red ear syndrome?
Red ear syndrome (RES) is rare. Its symptoms include reddening of the outside of the ear(s), as well as a burning sensation. This may last only briefly but can continue for several minutes or even hours. The symptoms can be brought on by extremes of temperature or by rubbing the ear, although they can just occur all by themselves.
There are two main types of RES, primary and secondary. Primary RES is the more common. It affects children, teenagers and young adults, especially those who have a tendency to have migraines. Secondary RES is more likely to affect older people, especially those who have cluster headaches, or problems with the upper part of their spine.
There is currently no standard treatment for RES. Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs or steroids for short) can be useful to relieve symptoms.
Symptoms may occur in one or both ears, and their severity, duration and recurrence will vary from person to person.
Severity: From a mild ache, to a sharp, more severe pain that can spread away from the ears onto the jawline or back of the head.
Duration: Usually only minutes, though sometimes up to half an hour. More severe attacks can last several hours.
Recurrence: Often only a single occurrence. However, some people experience repeated attacks, up to 20 times a day.
Please note, that although red ears can be discomforting, the condition is not harmful to your long-term health.
Relapsing polychondritis is a rare disease that commonly affects the cartilage of the ears but which may also occur in other areas of the body. It is caused by your immune system and leads to red, swollen and tender ears, problems with your balance and even hearing impairment. The disease may spread to your inner ear and can have a serious effect on your hearing, so prompt diagnosis and treatment is essential.
Perichondritis is an infection of the tissue around the cartilage in the ear and causes redness, tenderness and swelling. It can be caused by an insect bite, cuts or grazes, ear piercing or medical surgery. If left unchecked, it can damage the cartilage, so prompt treatment is recommended.
Seborrhoeic dermatitis / seborrhoeic eczema
Seborrhoeic dermatitis or seborrhoeic eczema is a skin condition that can lead to red ears. It affects between 2% and 5% of the population and causes the skin to become red and itchy, with some scaly or crusty patches. As well as the ear, it can cause redness on the face and upper back. Its cause is uncertain, but may be genetic or related to the body’s immune system.
Preventing red ears
You can prevent sunburn with appropriate, high-SPF sunscreen and wide-brimmed sunhats. Personal hygiene – washing your hands regularly and well – will reduce the risk of skin infections. Keep wounds clean and covered. Treat dry or scaly skin with appropriate moisturiser (medicated if required). However, red ears from blushing or flushing may be nearly impossible to prevent.
Red ears in children
Red ears in children is most often the result of flushing, lots of exercise or a minor knock or injury. There may be an infection, although it is rarely serious. However, if you have any concerns or if there are other medical symptoms, please consult your doctor.
When to see an audiology specialist
Red ears caused by blushing, sunburn or minor irritation will go away on their own. If your symptoms are frequent or painful, however, or if you can’t hear properly in the afflicted ear(s) then you should seek medical advice. The same goes if you have a fever or any discharge.
Patient outlook for red ears
If you think your red ears are caused by something more than sunburn, blushing or flushing, please contact your doctor, as you may need medical diagnosis and appropriate treatment.