Swollen Ear

Author thumbnail Laura James  |  Published 25 June 2024  | Updated 04 July 2024  | 6 mins read

A woman holding her red and inflamed ear.

From ear infections to allergic reactions, there are many reasons you might have swelling in your ear(s). A swollen ear can be caused by various things and might look different for each person as it can affect the outside of your ear or the ear canal. 

Symptoms

Some symptoms you may experience with a swollen ear include:

  • Pain: Discomfort, feeling of fullness, or sharp pain in the swollen area.
  • Itching: A persistent itching in the affected ear.
  • Redness: Noticeable redness in the affected area.
  • Inflammation: Visible swelling in the earlobe, cartilage, or ear canal.
  • Discharge: You might see fluid or pus draining from the ear, also known as ear discharge.
  • Difficulty hearing: You might experience increased difficult hearing in the affected ear if the ear canal is swollen.
  • Fever: You may develop a fever accompanying the swollen ear.
  • Tender to touch: The affected area of the ear might feel tender or sensitive to touch.

Causes

The cause of your swollen ear will depend on the part of your ear that is affected. The most common areas of your ear to experience swelling are the outer shell and your ear canal.

 

Auricular hematoma

Typically caused by blunt trauma or injury, an auricular hematoma is a collection of blood under the skin of your earlobe or outer ear. Not treating an auricular hematoma can lead to cauliflower ear – a deformity that affects many rugby players and boxers, for example.

Otitis externa

Otitis externa, also known as swimmer’s ear, is a common bacterial or fungal ear infection that can be caused by water that has been sitting in the ear canal for an extended period of time. It can lead to swelling, redness, and pain in the ears.

Cellulitis

A bacterial infection of the skin and tissues beneath the skin, causing redness, swelling, and tenderness in the affected area.

Allergic reaction

Allergic reactions can happen in response to an allergen, causing swelling, redness, and itchiness around the earlobe, outer ear, or inner ear structures.

The most common types of allergic reactions in ears include:

  • Jewellery – a reaction to specific metals such as nickel.
  • Insect bites – your ear may swell depending on the type of insect bite.

Abscess

A collection of pus within the ear tissue, typically caused by a bacterial infection, resulting in swelling, pain, and sometimes fever.

Piercings

Piercings can become swollen, red, and sore after they have been done but should go down after a few days with proper aftercare.

Treatment

Just like the cause, the treatment you will receive for your ear swelling will also depend on what is causing it.

An audiologist examining the ear of a patient with an otoscope.

How to Treat Earlobe Swelling

Treating a swollen earlobe at home can be an effective solution but keep an eye out for other symptoms or complications that might require seeking medical attention. . 

  • Apply a cold compress: Use a cold pack wrapped in a cloth to reduce swelling and ease discomfort. Hold to the affected area for no more than 10-15 minutes at a time. 
  • Keep the area clean: Gently wash the affected earlobe with mild soap and water or sterile saline solution to prevent infection.
  • Avoid tight jewellery: If the swelling is affecting any existing piercings, remove any earrings or other jewellery to prevent further irritation and promote healing.
  • Elevate the head: Keep your head elevated, above the rest of your body – such as propping yourself up on a couple of pillows at night – to reduce blood flow to the swollen earlobe, which can help reduce swelling. 
  • Seek medical attention: If the swelling persists for more than a few days or is accompanied by severe pain, fever, or discharge, consult a healthcare professional for further evaluation and treatment. 
A woman putting drops in her ear.

How to Treat a Swollen Ear Canal

Treating a swollen ear canal can be a bit trickier than swelling on the outside of your ear because it’s all internal. But there are still ways you can help ease the discomfort at home. 

  • Use ear drops: Over-the-counter or prescription ear drops can help relieve inflammation and discomfort caused by otitis externa.
  • Keep the ear dry: Avoid getting water in the affected ear to prevent the condition getting worse.
  • Warm compress: Hold a warm, damp cloth to your ear to help ease pain, reduce swelling, and promote drainage.
  • Prescription medications: Your healthcare provider may prescribe you antibiotics or antifungal medications to treat the underlying infection.
  • Avoid inserting objects: As tempting as it can be to use cotton swabs or other objects to remove discharge or itch inside your ear, never stick anything into the ear canal, as this can exacerbate the swelling and potentially cause injury.
  • Follow up with a healthcare provider: If your symptoms persist or worsen despite home treatment, seek medical attention for further evaluation and management.

When to Visit a Specialist

Seeking advice from your doctor or hearing care specialist is important to make sure the swelling doesn’t do any kind of long-term damage to your overall ear health or hearing. See a doctor if you’re experiencing any symptoms for longer than 3 days of if you have:

  • Persistent or severe pain: If the swelling in your ear is accompanied by persistent or severe pain that doesn’t improve with over-the-counter pain relievers.
  • Signs of infection: If you notice signs of infection such as fever, redness, warmth, or discharge from the ear.

Prevention

Discuss ways to prevent swollen ears, such as:

Prevention is the best solution for swollen ears so taking good measures to ensure you don’t irritate your ears is the best course of action.

  • Maintain good ear hygiene by not inserting objects into your ear canal and keeping ears dry.
  • Use ear protection in noisy environments like working with machinery, concerts, or explosions.
  • Manage allergies.
  • Treat ear infections promptly to prevent swelling.
  • Visit an audiologist for regular check-ups to monitor ear health and address any concerns early on.

Takeaway

Swollen ears can be painful and sensitive but can be caused by many different things. From insect bites to ear infections and many things in between, swollen ears will need to be treated according to the cause and each cause has a different treatment. This is why following good ear hygiene and taking preventative measures in loud environments is important to your overall ear health.

FAQs

It can mean many things. From an insect bite to an auricular hematoma, there are many things that can cause just one ear to become swollen. If you’re concerned about the swelling on or in your ear, or it hasn’t gone down after some home treatment, see your doctor or hearing care specialist. 

If your ear is painful, red, swollen, inflamed, and you have discharge or pus from your ear, it is likely infected and will need medical attention. 

Most ear inflammation doesn’t cause any lasting effects with proper care and treatment. 

Ear swelling usually goes down by itself after a few days but you can apply a cold compress to your ear if the swelling is external or hold a warm, damp cloth to your ear if the swelling is internal. 

Pillow ear is ear pain caused by pressure on certain parts of your ear for extended periods of time – it can make sleeping uncomfortable and cause redness and swelling.