What causes a swollen ear?
The cause of a swollen ear will depend very much on which part of the ear is affected. The most common areas to swell are the earlobe and ear canal, the reasons for which are outlined below.
Trauma, infection or an allergic reaction can result in swelling to your earlobe or the areas behind your earlobe. This can be caused as a result of a cut or piercing, or a reaction to something you’ve put on your ear.
Your swollen earlobe might look red and puffy and feel sore or painful. In most cases, over the-counter medicine will ease the swelling but occasionally you might need to see your GP or audiologist if it gets a bit out of hand.
Here are some of the common causes of a swollen ear:
Prime suspect for a swollen ear is piercings, especially if they are through the cartilage – the harder bit of the ear. Having a piercing is obviously going to result in some pain and swelling but this should ease off after a few days.
If the swelling doesn’t go down and the pain carries on, then you may have an infection, or your body could be rejecting the piercing. If you’re worried, it’s best to seek the opinion of a medical professional.
From wearing earrings that are too tight, to being hit in the ear, an injury to your ear can cause swelling and pain.
People who box or play rugby and other contact sports, need to be aware of hematoma auris, also known as cauliflower ear. This is caused when blood pools in the outer ear, but does not drain away properly, as a result you can develop an infection and the ear can be deformed – it will probably hurt quite a bit too.
Your ear might swell as the result of an allergic reaction – this can be caused by a few different things:
Some people react to earrings made from nickel – if you suspect this is the cause then remove your earring(s) and look for nickel-free alternatives.
Depending on what you’ve been bitten by, your earlobe may swell up in reaction to the venom in the bite. You’ll need to treat this swelling depending on which insect bit you.
Also known as ‘contact dermatitis’, your ear can swell if your skin reacts to a substance that’s touched it. It can also feel itchy, inflamed and go red. An example of this would be contact with a poisonous plant or one that you have a particular allergy to, or even a reaction to make-up or a topical medication.
Inner ear infections are pretty common, but did you know they can also occur on the outside of your ear too? Cellulitis is one to watch out for as it’s fairly common and can affect earlobes. Keep an eye out for a rash or red, swollen area that feels sore and hot. If you think it could be cellulitis contact your GP.
Swollen ear canal
Ear infections are pretty common in children and affect adults too, they tend to be pretty miserable affairs due to the build-up of fluid and inflammation in the ear canal that causes pain and swelling.
Also known as otitis externa an ear infection occurs as a result of a viral or bacterial infection attacking your middle ear.
Otitis externa is often known as swimmer’s ear because it affects people who swim regularly. It results in ear swelling, pain and itchiness and tends to be most common in children aged seven to 12.
Depending how severe your ear infection is, it might ease on its own or may require antibiotics.
Unfortunately, ear infections can reoccur so it’s worth taking note of the following common causes:
Overcleaning your ears
Overcleaning your ears can result in ear infections. Try to avoid using cotton buds too and definitely don’t stick pen lids, hairgrips or nails in there no matter how tempting it is to have a good rummage around for wax. The fact is, even the smallest scratch to the ear canal can develop into an ear infection.Find out more
Hearing aids/earphones/ear plugs
Hearing aids/earphones/ear plugs are obviously designed to be in and around your ears, but they need regular cleaning to remove any bacteria and excess moisture that can lead to an ear infection.Cleaning hearing aids video
Hair dyes or hair spray
Take it easy when using hair dyes or hair spray and make a note if you have an allergic reaction to any shampoos and soaps as these can get into the ear canal and result in an ear infection.
Eczema, acne, psoriasis or other skin conditions
If you’re prone to eczema, acne, psoriasis or another skin condition, don’t forget to keep an eye on your ears to avoid inflammation within the ear canal. The same goes for fungal infections that can affect the ear canal.
Asthma or hay fever
If you have asthma or hay fever you may also be more likely to develop ear infections.
If your immunity is compromised in any way, for example being treated for cancer, you may also be more susceptible to ear infections.
Narrow ear canals
Sometimes our ear canals are a bit too narrow, if this is the case, it can be tricky for moisture to drain away. This moisture can then form bacteria which, in turn, causes an ear infection.
Swollen lumps behind the ear
Got a weird lump on or around your ear? Don’t freak out, although they might need to be looked at by a doctor, the majority of lumps and bumps are perfectly harmless.
Here’s some of the potential culprits for lumps around the ears:
Infection: Sometimes a bacterial or viral infection will cause lumps, these include chicken pox, measles and strep throat.
Mastoiditis: a complication of an untreated ear condition, mastoiditis is rare but can be serious.
Abscess: not the most pleasant of things, an abscess forms from the white blood cells that have been sent to fight-off bacteria or a virus. The abscess looks like a bump on or under the skin that is filled with the dead white blood cells (pus) and other material. They tend to be painful and may feel warm.
Boils: a boil forms as a result of an infection around a hair follicle that then fills with pus. A group of boils is known as a carbuncle.
Lymph nodes: sometimes you’ll find lumps in the lymph nodes around your neck and behind your ears, this is because the nodes can swell as they fight-off infections.
Skin cysts: sound scary but they’re actually just your skin having a meltdown and filling with liquid. That’s not to say they won’t hurt, especially if they are big and in an awkward position around
Acne: everyone gets spots at some point, but acne tends to be more of a problem and can develop into cysts and painful spots around the ear.
Lipoma: these fatty lumps can form anywhere on the body, so it’s possible they could form around the ear. They don’t tend to cause any problems but can be removed if they get big.
Treatment for a swollen ear
Treating a swollen ear will depend very much on what is causing the swelling and what part of the ear it is affecting.
If your ear is swollen, then take out any jewellery or hearing aids as a first step. If the swelling doesn’t go down, gets painful, itchy or hot, then speak to a chemist or contact your GP. You may be able to treat it with over-the-counter medications or you may need antibiotics.
When to see a hearing specialist
Sometimes a swollen ear doesn’t get better with home remedies (paracetamol etc) and you may need to see your GP
In the case of a severe allergic reaction where the person is struggling to breathe, contact emergency medical help immediately
If the swelling is accompanied by sudden hearing loss you’ll need to seek help quickly.
If you have pain in your ear or a persistent itch in the ear canal, speak to your GP.
If an ear infection starts producing discharge that is smelly, thick or a funny-colour see a GP.
Recovery from a swollen ear will depend on which bit is swollen and why, there are numerous causes and treatments.
To reduce the swelling in your ear, you really need to determine why it is swelling up in the first place and take steps from there. The first step is to remove any jewellery or hearing aids.
Your ear can swell for a number of reasons from an allergic reaction to ear infection. Find out what is causing the problem and then it can be tackled. In the meantime, remove any jewellery/hearing aids to see if that eases the problem.
Recovery time from a swollen ear canal will depend on why it is swollen. There are numerous causes and treatments, but the most likely is an ear infection that may take a few days to a few weeks depending on the severity of it.