Read below about swollen ear, including causes, treatment options and remedies. Or get a personalized analysis of your swollen ear 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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Swollen Ear Symptoms

Swelling is the result of fluid buildup that gets trapped in the body's tissues. The trapped fluid often makes the affected body part appear larger than normal, thus a swollen ear can be easily identified by comparing its size to the size of the other ear.

The entire ear may be affected, but it is possible for just a portion of the ear (such as the earlobe) to be swollen.

Since the ear is composed of inner, middle and outer portions, swollen ear symptoms may also be associated with symptoms that include:

If not addressed promptly, a swollen ear and its associated symptoms can develop rapidly to include more severe swollen ear symptoms such as:

If you notice any of these swollen ear symptoms, make an appointment with your doctor promptly in order to follow up on your symptoms, get a diagnosis and receive appropriate care.

Swollen Ear Causes Overview

The ear is a complex organ composed of three main parts and connecting structures:

  • Outer/external ear (pinna): this consists of the outside portion visible to the eye and a canal that runs from the eardrum to the outside of the head.
  • Middle Ear: this consists of three small bones (the mallus, the incus and the stapes) that connect and transmit sound waves from the outside world to the inner ear.
  • Inner Ear: this consists of nerves and receptors necessary for hearing and balance.
  • The ear is also composed of a tympanic membrane (eardrum) that divides the outer ear from the middle ear, and a Eustachian tube. The Eustachian tube is a structure that links the middle ear to the nose and helps equalize pressure in the middle ear.

See this image for a visual representation of the outer, middle and inner parts of ear and its different components.

Any condition that causes accumulation of fluid in these tissues of the ear will result in swelling. A swollen ear may not seem serious initially, but without prompt medical follow-up and care your symptoms could worsen.

Infections

The majority of causes of a swollen ear stem from inflammation and infection of the different components of the ear. Infection of the outer ear is known as otitis externa and infection of the middle ear is known as otitis media.

  • Bacterial: Because the ear is open to the outside environment, it is very susceptible to bacterial causes of infection. These organisms are often present on the skin and easily infect the tissues of the ear. This causes entrance of fluids into the tissues that result in inflammation, swelling and other symptoms.
  • Viral: Since the ear is also directly connected to the nose, viral illnesses such as the cold or flu can cause congestion and swelling of the nasal passages, throat and Eustachian tubes that can also result in inflammation and swelling of the ear.

Blockage

Conditions that result in excess moisture inside the ear canal create an environment ideal for bacterial and fungal 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 that leads to swelling of the ear.

  • 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 that results in swelling.

  • Devices: Items that you put directly into your ear such as headphones or hearing aids can also cause blockage that traps excess water.

Environmental causes:

  • Trauma: 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. The bacteria can infect the ear and cause swelling and inflammation. Furthermore, trauma can also include causes such as bug bites and piercings.
  • Sensitivity: Jewelry and sometimes hair products can cause allergy and irritation to the skin. Such products can cause allergic reactions to the ear that result in swelling, but these products can also promote infection by breaking the skin and allowing organisms to enter the ear, also resulting in swelling.

A.I. Health Assistant Causes for Swollen Ear

The list below shows results from the use of our A.I. Health Assistant by Buoy users who experienced swollen ear. This list does not constitute medical advice.

  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.Cellulitis

    Facial cellulitis is a skin infection that typically comes from other parts of the face like the mouth or the sinuses and needs antibiotic treatment. Symptoms can be pain, redness, warmth and swelling of the affected area.

    Dependent on severity of infection

    Rarity:
    Uncommon
    Top Symptoms:
    fever, chills, facial redness, swollen face, face pain
    Symptoms that always occur with cellulitis:
    facial redness, area of skin redness
    Urgency:
    Primary care doctor

    Swollen Ear Checker

    Take a quiz to find out why you’re having swollen ear.

    Swollen Ear Quiz
  3. 3.Lymph Node Inflammation Behind the Ear

    There are lymph nodes behind the ear. Lymph nodes are where your immune cells live, and when they become enlarged, it could be from a nearby infection, immune response, or even backlog of blood.

    Depends on the outcomes of what is causing the enlargement

    Rarity:
    Common
    Top Symptoms:
    pain behind the ear, swelling behind the ears
    Symptoms that always occur with lymph node inflammation behind the ear:
    swelling behind the ears
    Urgency:
    Primary care doctor
  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:
    Ultra rare
    Top Symptoms:
    shortness of breath, joint pain, congestion, runny nose, wheezing
    Urgency:
    Primary care doctor
  5. 5.Skin Cyst

    An epidermoid cyst is a closed sac under the skin filled with a cheese-like or oily material. It is caused by trauma or surgery.

    Resolves with treatment

    Rarity:
    Common
    Top Symptoms:
    skin-colored armpit bump, marble sized armpit lump, small armpit lump
    Symptoms that always occur with skin cyst:
    skin-colored armpit bump
    Urgency:
    Wait and watch

Swollen Ear Treatments and Relief

At the onset of symptoms, seek prompt medical attention.

If your swollen ear symptoms are caused by infection, your doctor will treat your swollen ear 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.
  • Eardrops: Your doctor will prescribe eardrops to treat bacteria and fungi as well as reduce inflammation and help restore your ear's normal pH balance.

If your swollen ear symptoms are not related to infection, but rather environmental causes such as an insect bite or sensitivity reaction, your doctor will provide you with medications that can soothe the inflammatory reaction causing the swelling.

In order to minimize or prevent outer ear pain 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 drainage 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 Swollen Ear

  • Q.Any fever today or during the last week?
  • Q.Is there anything coming from your ear(s)?
  • Q.Do you have swelling behind your ears?
  • Q.Do you use a hearing aid or wear earplugs?

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

Swollen Ear Quiz

Swollen Ear Symptom Checker Statistics

  • People who have experienced swollen ear have also experienced:

    • 12% Outer Ear Pain
    • 12% Ear Canal Pain
    • 10% Pain in One Ear Canal
  • People who have experienced swollen ear had symptoms persist for:

    • 50% Less Than a Week
    • 31% Less Than a Day
    • 8% Over a Month
  • People who have experienced swollen ear were most often matched with:

    • 33% Swimmer's Ear (Otitis Externa)
    • 33% Cellulitis
    • 33% Lymph Node Inflammation Behind the Ear
  • Source: Aggregated and anonymized results from visits to the Buoy AI health assistant (check it out by clicking on “Take Quiz”).

A.I. Health Assistant

Take a quiz to find out why you’re having swollen ear

Swollen Ear Quiz