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.

5 Potential Swollen Ear 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.Cellulitis

    Cellulitis is a skin infection that typically comes from other parts of the face like the mouth or the sinuses.

    Dependent on severity of infection

    Rarity:
    Uncommon
    Top Symptoms:
    fever, ear pain, ear redness, swollen ear
    Symptoms that always occur with cellulitis:
    ear redness, area of skin redness
    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

    Swollen Ear Checker

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

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  3. 3.Chronic Earwax Blockage

    Earwax production is a normal process, as the body makes wax to protect the ear from infection. Sometimes ear wax can build up and cover the eardrum which is a thin layer of skin that stretches across the end of the ear canal and picks up sound from outside.

    With treatment, the condition will resolve.

    Rarity:
    Common
    Top Symptoms:
    dizziness, dry cough, ear canal pain, ringing in the ears, ear fullness/pressure
    Symptoms that always occur with chronic earwax blockage:
    ear canal pain
    Symptoms that never occur with chronic earwax blockage:
    swollen ear, fever
    Urgency:
    Phone call or in-person visit
  4. 4.Earwax Blockage

    Ear wax production is a normal process, as the body makes wax to protect the ear from infection. Sometimes ear wax can build up and cover the eardrum, which is a thin layer of skin that stretches across the end of the ear canal and picks up sound from outside. Ear wax buildup has nothing to do with poor hygiene, and it is not possible to prevent a build-up by washing.

    Condition likely will go away on its own after 5 days without treatment. However, with pain, dizziness, or feelings of fullness, the earwax should be removed.

    Rarity:
    Uncommon
    Top Symptoms:
    dizziness, dry cough, ear canal pain, ear fullness/pressure, ringing in the ears
    Symptoms that never occur with earwax blockage:
    swollen ear, fever
    Urgency:
    Phone call or in-person visit
  5. 5.Non - Specific Ear Pain

    Ear pain not caused by infection or injury that is a variation of normal.

    1-2 days

    Rarity:
    Common
    Top Symptoms:
    ear canal pain
    Symptoms that always occur with non-specific ear pain:
    ear canal pain
    Symptoms that never occur with non-specific ear pain:
    severe ear canal pain, swollen ear, ear discharge, ear pain that gets worse when moving
    Urgency:
    Self-treatment

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 use a hearing aid or wear earplugs?
  • Q.Have you ever been diagnosed with diabetes?

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

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Swollen Ear Symptom Checker Statistics

  • People who have experienced swollen ear have also experienced:

    • 13% Outer Ear Pain
    • 11% Ear Canal Pain
    • 10% Pain in One Ear Canal
  • People who have experienced swollen ear had symptoms persist for:

    • 50% Less Than a Week
    • 32% Less Than a Day
    • 8% Over a Month
  • People who have experienced swollen ear were most often matched with:

    • 21% Cellulitis
  • 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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