Symptoms A-Z

Swollen Ear Symptoms, Causes & Common Questions

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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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.

Common accompanying symptoms of a swollen ear

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

Other serious symptoms

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

Ear anatomy

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 [1].
  • Inner ear: This 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 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 [2,3].

  • 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 [4]. 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

Environmental causes of a swollen ear may be related to lifestyle habits or certain exposures.

  • 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 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

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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...

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 the onset of symptoms, seek prompt medical attention.

At-home treatment

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.

When to see a doctor

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 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 as well as reduce inflammation and help restore your ear's normal pH balance [5].

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.

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?

The above questions are also covered by our A.I. Health Assistant.

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

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

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 visits to the Buoy AI health assistant (check it out by clicking on “Take 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

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.