Burning Sensation in the Ear: Medical Causes Explained
What is an ear burning sensation?
The sensation of burning in, on or around your ear may cause it to feel swollen, inflamed and tender. It may be warm to the touch. Many causes of burning and inflammation are attributed to an infection, which occurs when bacteria, viruses or other microorganisms enter your body. The immune response to these microorganisms is responsible for the typical symptoms of infection, such as redness, warmth and swelling.
An ear burning sensation is often attributed to otitis media with effusion, in which the Eustachian tube of the middle ear becomes blocked with fluid and infected. The Eustachian tube connects your ear to your throat and permits the drainage of fluid from your middle ear. If fluid builds up, it can cause the middle ear to become infected with bacteria or viruses, causing pain and swelling.
Another source of burning sensation is otitis externa, commonly known as swimmer’s ear. This condition, which often results from water getting into the outer ear canal, is typically accompanied by burning, swelling and itching. Water remaining in the ear creates a warm, moist environment that encourages the growth of bacteria, such as Pseudomonas. Other causes can contribute to otitis externa, including an infection of the bone at the base of the skull, a foreign object lodged in the ear, and irritation from itching or cleaning the ear. Allergies to earrings or skin conditions, such as eczema, can also produce symptoms of swimmer’s ear.
Burning accompanied by redness around the outer ear and the skin around your ear can be indications of a serious infection that should prompt you to contact your health care provider right away. If you experience tenderness in the bone behind your ear, along with pain and swelling, you could have mastoiditis (infection of the mastoid bone) or a lymph node infection.
Although most ear infections either resolve on their own or with antibiotics, some symptoms warrant immediate medical attention, as they can point to an infection of the bones behind the ear or to a ruptured eardrum. Ear burning sensation may also be a symptom of anaphylaxis, a life-threatening allergic reaction. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you have any serious symptoms, including swelling of the throat or difficulty breathing; high fever (higher than 101 degrees Fahrenheit); severe pain or severe headache; swelling and redness of the skin around the ear; or throbbing or tenderness behind the ear, especially over the bone.
Seek prompt medical care if you have any other ear burning sensation that causes you concern.
What other symptoms might occur with an ear burning sensation?
Ear burning sensation may be accompanied by other symptoms, depending on the underlying disease, disorder or condition. Certain conditions that cause an ear burning sensation may also involve other body systems.
Related localized symptoms that may occur along with an ear burning sensation
Ear burning sensation may be accompanied by other localized symptoms including:
- Crusting or flaking skin
- Drainage or discharge from the ear
- Itchy ears
- Pain or tenderness
- Redness, warmth or swelling
Other symptoms that may occur along with an ear burning sensation
Ear burning sensation may accompany symptoms related to other body systems including:
Serious symptoms that might indicate a life-threatening condition
Although most ear infections and other causes of ear burning sensation either resolve on their own or with antibiotics, some symptoms warrant immediate medical attention, as they may indicate an infection of the bones behind the ear or a ruptured eardrum. Ear burning sensation may also be a symptom of anaphylaxis, a life-threatening allergic reaction that should be evaluated immediately in an emergency setting. Seek immediate medical care if you, or someone you are with, have any of the following life-threatening symptoms:
High fever (higher than 101 degrees Fahrenheit)
What causes an ear burning sensation?
Ear burning sensation has many possible causes, including allergens (agents that cause allergies), infections, autoimmune disorders, or other causes, such as stress.
Allergic causes of an ear burning sensation
Ear burning sensation could be an allergic reaction to any of the following:
Cosmetics, dyes or detergents
Industrial chemicals, such as those found in elastic, latex or rubber
Insect bites or stings
Metals, especially in jewelry
Poison ivy or oak
Infectious causes of an ear burning sensation
Ear burning sensation can also be caused by infections including:
- Candidiasis (yeast infection)
- Chickenpox or shingles (varicella-zoster virus)
- Mastoiditis (infection of the bone behind the ear)
- Other bacterial or viral infections
- Pseudomonal infection (caused by Pseudomonas bacteria)
Skin disease causes of an ear burning sensation
Ear burning sensation can be caused by skin diseases that affect other parts of the body. These include:
Eczema (skin rash usually caused by allergic reactions)
Neurodermatitis (skin condition of unknown cause characterized by intense itching)
Psoriasis (chronic skin disease characterized by dry, scaly silvery patches)
Other causes of an ear burning sensation
Ear burning sensation can be caused by other factors including:
- Extreme cold or heat
Serious or life-threatening causes of an ear burning sensation
In some cases, ear burning sensation may be a symptom of a serious or life-threatening condition that should be evaluated immediately in an emergency setting. These include:
- Anaphylaxis (life-threatening allergic reaction)
- Severe infections
Questions for diagnosing the cause of an ear burning sensation
To diagnose your condition, your doctor or licensed health care practitioner will ask you several questions related to your ear burning sensation including:
When did you first feel an ear burning sensation?
Are you taking any medications?
Are you experiencing oozing, pus, or any other discharge from the ear?
Do you feel otherwise healthy?
Have you tried any new products recently, such as soaps, perfumes or sprays?
Have you spent a lot of time outdoors lately?
Have you been swimming or scuba diving?
Have you recently flown in an airplane or done anything else that exposed you to sudden shifts in altitude or air pressure?
An ear burning sensation is not usually serious, but it is important to determine its underlying cause and rule out a serious infection or allergic reaction. Once the underlying cause is diagnosed, it is important for you to follow the treatment plan that you and your health care professional design specifically for you to reduce the risk of potential complications.
Communication difficulties (speech or language impairment)
Mastoiditis (inflammation of the bone behind the ear)
Meningitis (inflammation of the meninges, a protective membrane of the brain )
Recurring ear infections