Read below about outer ear pain, including causes, treatment options and remedies. Or get a personalized analysis of your outer ear pain from our A.I. health assistant. At Buoy, we build tools that help you know what’s wrong right now and how to get the right care.

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Outer Ear Pain Symptoms

Outer ear pain usually begins as mild discomfort that is often worsened by pulling on the ear or pushing on the bump (tragus) in front of the ear. At the onset of outer ear pain symptoms, the appearance of the ear usually does not change. It may not look red, swollen or deformed, so initial symptoms may be easy to dismiss.

However, the outer ear is more than just the cartilaginous, fleshy part used for earrings and other piercings. The outer ear is also composed of a canal that runs from the eardrum to the outside of the head.

As a result, outer ear pain symptoms may progress to include symptoms such as:

If not addressed promptly, outer ear pain and its associated symptoms can develop rapidly to include severe outer ear pain symptoms such as:

  • Redness and swelling of the ear
  • Pain that radiates from the ear to the face or neck
  • Decreased or muffled hearing
  • Excessive fluid drainage or pus

It is important to follow up on symptoms of outer ear pain promptly in order to get appropriate care and prevent the development of more severe symptoms and consequences.

Outer Ear Pain Causes Overview

The majority of causes of outer ear pain stem from infection of the outer ear canal or otitis externa. Since the ear is open to the outside world, it is easily susceptible to infection by both bacterial and viral causes. Even though the outer ear canal has natural defenses that work to keep the ears clean and prevent infection, any condition that compromises these natural defenses can result in outer ear pain symptoms.

Irritation:

  • Scratches/Abrasions: Practices such as excessive cleaning of the ear with cotton swabs or scratching inside the ear with a finger can result in breaks in the skin that allow bacteria to grow.
  • Sensitivity: Jewelry and sometimes hair products can cause allergy and irritation to the skin that can promote infection.

Blockage:

  • Conditions that result in excess moisture inside the ear canal create an environment ideal for bacterial growth.

  • Environmental: External factors such as swimming and heavy perspiration put moisture directly into the ear canal. Repeated exposure can result in bacterial growth and future infection.

  • Structural: Some people have narrow ear canals that make drainage of moisture more difficult. This structural anomaly causes blockage that traps water and promotes bacterial growth and infection.

  • Devices: Gadgets that you put directly into your ear such as headphones or hearing aids can also cause blockages that trap excess water.

4 Potential Outer Ear Pain Causes

Disclaimer: The article does not replace an evaluation by a physician. Information on this page is provided as an information resource only, and is not to be used or relied on for any diagnostic or treatment purposes.

  1. 1.Swimmer's Ear (Otitis Externa)

    Swimmer's ear, also known as otitis externa, is inflammation, irritation, or infection of the outer ear and ear canal.

    7-10 days

    Rarity:
    Common
    Top Symptoms:
    fever, ear canal pain, ear fullness/pressure, jaw pain, ear pain that gets worse when moving
    Urgency:
    Primary care doctor
  2. 2.Mild Frostbite of the Ears

    Frostbite is tissue damage caused by exposure to the cold (at or below 32F or 0C). It is most commonly found in people doing leisurely activities like camping, hunting, or snow sports. It is also more likely in those who are intoxicated or have a mental disorder.

    It takes 1-3 months to assess the damage, at which time, surgery might be needed.

    Rarity:
    Rare
    Top Symptoms:
    swollen ear, ear numbness, outer ear pain, ear redness, turning blue or purple from coldness
    Symptoms that always occur with mild frostbite of the ears:
    cold ears
    Urgency:
    Hospital emergency room

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  3. 3.Mild Frostnip of the Ears

    Frostnip is damage of the outermost layers of the skin caused by exposure to the cold (at or below 32F or 0C). It is most commonly found in people doing leisurely activities like camping, hunting, or snow sports.

    As long as you are able to get to a place to re-warm, the damage should be reversible.

    Rarity:
    Rare
    Top Symptoms:
    ear numbness, outer ear pain, ear redness, turning blue or purple from coldness, cold ears
    Symptoms that always occur with mild frostnip of the ears:
    cold ears
    Urgency:
    In-person visit
  4. 4.Relapsing Polychondritis

    Relapsing polychondritis is an episodic, inflammatory and destructive disorder involving primarily cartilage of the ear and nose. It can also potentially affect the eyes, tracheobronchial tree, heart valves, kidneys, joints, skin, and blood vessels.

    Episodes of inflammation can last a few days to several weeks that then subside spontaneously or with treatment. Attacks may recur at intervals varying from weeks to months.

    Rarity:
    Rare
    Top Symptoms:
    shortness of breath, joint pain, congestion, runny nose, wheezing
    Urgency:
    Primary care doctor

Outer Ear Pain Treatments and Relief

At the onset of outer ear pain symptoms, seek prompt medical attention.

Your doctor will treat your outer ear pain by stopping the infection and allowing the ear to heal.

  • Drainage/Cleaning: Your doctor will use suction or a small device to drain water and clear away debris, earwax or extra skin. This is necessary to allow for the next step, the antibiotic eardrops, to move freely through all infected areas of the ear. Depending on the extent of blockage or swelling, your doctor may insert cotton or gauze in the ear to promote drainage instead.
  • Ear-drops: Your doctor will prescribe ear-drops with a combination of ingredients that fight bacteria and fungi. These will also reduce inflammation and help restore your ear's normal pH balance.
  • Pain medication: To ease the outer ear pain symptoms, your doctor may suggest over-the-counter non-opioid pain medications.

During treatment make sure to take your eardrops as prescribed. Avoid getting water in your ears (even during showers) and do not use headphones, hearing aids or earplugs until pain or discharge has stopped.

In order to prevent outer ear pain symptoms from occurring, there are many things you can do at home and change in your normal routine.

  • Keep your ears dry: Thoroughly dry your ears after exposure to moisture from swimming or bathing. Practice techniques such as tipping the head to the side to help water drain from the ear canal and wipe the outer ear slowly and gently with a towel.
  • Do not put foreign objects in your ear: Do not attempt to scratch or dig out earwax with objects such as cotton swabs (Q-tips) or paper clips. These items may not only irritate or break the skin in your ear, but can also pack the material deeper into your ear canal worsening blockage and moisture buildup.
  • Protect your ears from irritants: Be conscious of the type and quality of jewelry and piercings you use on your ears. Furthermore, protect your ear canal from hair sprays and dyes by using cotton balls or other protective measures.

Questions Your Doctor May Ask About Outer Ear Pain

  • Q.Any fever today or during the last week?
  • Q.Is there anything coming from your ear(s)?
  • Q.Have you ever been diagnosed with diabetes?
  • Q.Do you use a hearing aid or wear earplugs?

If you've answered yes to one or more of these questions, try our outer ear pain symptom checker to find out more.

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Outer Ear Pain Symptom Checker Statistics

  • People who have experienced outer ear pain have also experienced:

    • 15% Ear Canal Pain
    • 11% Pain Behind the Ear
    • 5% Swollen Ear
  • People who have experienced outer ear pain had symptoms persist for:

    • 47% Less Than a Week
    • 32% Less Than a Day
    • 8% Over a Month
  • People who have experienced outer ear pain were most often matched with:

    • 62% Swimmer's Ear (Otitis Externa)
  • Source: Aggregated and anonymized results from visits to the Buoy AI health assistant (check it out by clicking on “Take Quiz”).

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