What Causes Ear Swelling & How to Find Relief

Ear swelling can be caused by an infection of the outer or inner ear, or a skin infection like cellulitis. Other causes of a swollen earlobe can arise from irritation from allergies or trauma from an injury or piercing. Read below for more information on causes and how to reduce ear swelling.

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Contents

  1. Symptoms
  2. Causes
  3. 5 Possible Swollen Ear Conditions
  4. Treatments and Relief
  5. Questions Your Doctor May Ask
  6. Statistics
  7. Related Articles
  8. References

Swollen Ear Symptoms

Swelling occurs when fluid builds up in the body's tissues. The trapped fluid often makes the affected body part appear larger than normal, and it's probably easy for you to tell when one of your ears is swollen by comparison. Your entire ear may swell or just a portion of the ear, such as the earlobe.

Common accompanying symptoms of a swollen ear

The ear is composed of inner, middle, and outer portions. It's likely for ear swelling to present with:

More severe symptoms

If left untreated, your swollen ear may present with the following severe symptoms.

Swollen Ear Causes

The following details may help you better understand your symptoms and if and when you need to see a physician. Any condition that causes accumulation of fluid in these tissues of the ear will result in swelling.

Ear structure

The ear is a complex organ composed of three main parts and connecting structures, including the following. See this image for a visual representation.

  • Outer/external ear (pinna): This structure 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 structure consists of three small bones (the mallus, the incus, and the stapes) that connect and transmit sound waves from outside to the inner ear [1].
  • Inner ear: This structure consists of nerves and receptors necessary for hearing and balance.
  • Other components: 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 links the middle ear to the nose and helps equalize pressure in the middle ear.

Infectious causes

Infection of the outer ear is known as otitis externa and infection of the middle ear is known as otitis media [2,3].

  • Bacterial: The ear is open to the outside environment and is susceptible to bacteria. These organisms are often present on the skin and easily infect the tissues of the ear.
  • Viral: The ear also connects directly to the nose. Viral illnesses, such as the cold or flu, can cause congestion and swelling of the nasal passages, throat, and Eustachian tubes.

Obstruction

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

  • Environmental: Swimming and heavy perspiration moisten the ear canal [4]. Repeat exposure can result in bacterial growth and future infection that leads to swelling.
  • Structural: Some people have narrow ear canals that make moisture drainage more difficult. Obstructions that trap water and promote bacterial growth and infection are more likely.
  • Devices: Gadgets you put directly into your ears, such as headphones or hearing aids, can also cause a blockage that traps excess water.

Environmental causes

Environmental causes of a swollen ear may involve lifestyle habits or certain events.

  • Trauma: Cleaning of your ear excessively 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. Bug bites and piercings are other examples of trauma.
  • Sensitivity: Jewelry and sometimes hair products can cause allergy and irritation to the skin. Such products can cause allergic reactions or promote infection by breaking the skin and allowing organisms to enter the ear.

5 Possible Swollen Ear Conditions

The list below shows results from the use of our quiz by Buoy users who experienced swollen ear. This list does not constitute medical advice and may not accurately represent what you have.

Swimmer's ear (otitis externa)

Swimmer's ear, or otitis externa, is an infection of the canal which runs from the eardrum to the opening of the ear.

It is caused by anything that introduces bacteria, fungus, or a virus into the canal. Water that stays inside the ear after swimming is a common cause, as are cotton swabs used for cleaning or earpieces that create irritation.

Most susceptible are children, because they have narrower ear canals that do not drain well.

Early symptoms include redness, itching, and discomfort inside the ear canal, sometimes with drainage of clear fluid.

Even mild symptoms should be treated because they can quickly get worse. The infection can spread and intensify, becoming very painful with increased drainage, swelling, fever, and loss of hearing.

Diagnosis is made through patient history and physical examination of the ear canal. Lab tests may be done on a sample of the discharge from the ear.

Treatment includes having a medical provider clean the ear canal of debris and discharge, and a prescription for antibiotic and/or steroid eardrops.

Rarity: Common

Top Symptoms: fever, ear canal pain, ear fullness/pressure, jaw pain, ear pain that gets worse when moving

Urgency: Primary care doctor

Cellulitis

Cellulitis is a bacterial infection of the deep layers of the skin. It can appear anywhere on the body but is most common on the feet, lower legs, and face.

The condition can develop if Staphylococcus bacteria enter broken skin through a cut, scrape, or existing skin infection such as impetigo or eczema.

Most susceptible are those with a weakened immune system, as from corticosteroids or chemotherapy, or with impaired circulation from diabetes or any vascular disease.

Symptoms arise somewhat gradually and include sore, reddened skin.

If not treated, the infection can become severe, form pus, and destroy the tissue around it. In rare cases, the infection can cause blood poisoning or meningitis.

Symptom of severe pain, fever, cold sweats, and fast heartbeat should be seen immediately by a medical provider.

Diagnosis is made through physical examination.

Treatment consists of antibiotics, keeping the wound clean, and sometimes surgery to remove any dead tissue. Cellulitis often recurs, so it is important to treat any underlying conditions and improve the immune system with rest and good nutrition.

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 Symptom Checker

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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.

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

Relapsing polychondritis

Relapsing polychondritis is a disorder in which defects develop in cartilage and other tissues throughout the body, including the ears, nose, eyes, joints, and respiratory tract. It is considered a rare condition.

Symptoms vary widely by case, but you may experie...

Read more

Skin cyst

A cyst is a small sac or lump, filled with fluid, air, fat, or other material, that begins to grow somewhere in the body for no apparent reason. A skin cyst is one that forms just beneath the skin.

It's believed that skin cysts form around trapped keratin cells – the cells that form the relatively tough outer layer of the skin.

These cysts are not contagious.

Anyone can get a skin cyst, but they are most common in those who are over age 18, have acne, or have injured the skin.

Symptoms include the appearance of a small, rounded lump under the skin. Cysts are normally painless unless infected, when they will be reddened and sore and contain pus.

Diagnosis is made through physical examination. A small cyst can be left alone, though if it is unsightly or large enough to interfere with movement it can be removed in a simple procedure done in a doctor's office. An infected cyst must be treated so that the infection does not spread.

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-home treatments

To minimize or prevent ear swelling, try the following.

  • Keep your ears dry: Thoroughly dry your ears after exposure to moisture from swimming or bathing. Tipping your 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. Protect your ear canal from hair sprays and dyes by using cotton balls.

When to see a doctor

Your doctor can help you address ear swelling caused by an infection and promote healing.

  • Drainage or cleaning: Your doctor will use suction or a small device to drain water and clear away debris, earwax, or extra skin. Cleaning is necessary to allow antibiotic ear drops 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 to treat bacteria and fungi, reduce inflammation, and help restore your ear's normal pH balance [5].
  • Treatment for non-infectious causes: If environmental causes are to blame, such as an insect bite or sensitivity reaction, your doctor will provide medications that can soothe the inflammatory reaction causing the swelling.

When it is an emergency

If you experience the following, seek care immediately:

  • Fever
  • Worsening or severe ear swelling
  • Severe pain
  • An open wound or a sign of worsening infection

Questions Your Doctor May Ask About Swollen Ear

To diagnose this condition, your doctor would likely ask the following questions:

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

If you've answered yes to one or more of these questions

Please take a quiz to find out what might be causing your swollen ear. These questions are also covered.

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 were most often matched with:

  • 33% Swimmer'S Ear (Otitis Externa)
  • 33% Cellulitis
  • 33% Lymph Node Inflammation Behind The Ear

People who have experienced swollen ear had symptoms persist for:

  • 50% Less than a week
  • 31% Less than a day
  • 8% Over a month

Source: Aggregated and anonymized results from Buoy Assistant (a.k.a. the quiz).

Swollen Ear Symptom Checker

Take a quiz to find out what might be causing your swollen ear

References

  1. How do we hear? National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD). Updated January 3, 2018. NIDCD Link
  2. Hui CP, Canadian Paediatric Society, Infectious Diseases and Immunization Committee. Acute otitis externa. Paediatr Child Health. 2013;18(2):96-101. NCBI Link
  3. Harmes KM, Blackwood RA, Burrows HL, Cooke JM, Harrison RV, Passamani PP. Otitis media: Diagnosis and treatment. American Family Physician. 2013;88(7):435-440. AAFP Link
  4. Blahd WH Jr, Romito K, Husney A, eds. Ear canal problems (swimmer's ear). University of Michigan: Michigan Medicine. Updated September 23, 2018. U of M Health Link
  5. Ear infection. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Updated December 7, 2017. CDC Link