Lumps In and Around the Ear: Causes and Treatments

Medically Reviewed By Nicole Leigh Aaronson, MD, MBA, CPE, FACS, FAAP
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An ear lump is a swelling or bulging area in or around the ear. It may be benign (not harmful) or more serious, depending on the cause. Common causes of ear lumps include infections, inflammation, tumors, and injury. Some ear lumps may resolve on their own, while others may persist.

This article explains the various causes of lumps in and around the ear. It will also cover possible symptoms, diagnosing ear lumps, and potential treatments and complications.

What is an ear lump?

Woman with hands over her ears
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An ear lump is a bump or localized area of swelling that can occur anywhere on the ear. Other terms used to describe the various types of lumps include bump, nodule, tumor, and cyst.

Common sites for ear lumps include:

  • behind the ear
  • in the ear canal
  • on the ear lobe

Causes of ear lumps include infections, inflammation, tumors, or injury. Depending on the cause, ear lumps may be soft or firm, painful or painless. There may be a single lump or multiple lumps. They may grow rapidly or may not change in size.

Ear lumps caused by infection, inflammation, or injury are temporary. They will go away when the underlying condition resolves or is treated. Ear lumps that persist or grow over time may signal more serious conditions, such as tumors.

What are the causes of ear lump?

There are many possible causes of ear lumps, including:

  • benign cysts
  • infections
  • inflammatory diseases
  • trauma
  • tumors
  • cancers

Benign cysts that can cause ear lumps

Cysts, fluid-filled, sac-like structures that can form on various body parts, often feel like lumps. Some cysts develop from inflammation or tumors. Others may be present at birth. Types of benign cysts include:

  • Sebaceous cysts are filled with pus, dead skin cells, and excess oil. They are the most common type of cysts. They can form behind the ear, especially along the hairline. The causes of sebaceous cysts are unknown, but they may occur when oils are produced faster than they can be released from the skin gland.
  • Dermoid cysts form when hair, skin cells, or other tissue not usually in the area are trapped under the skin. This noncancerous small lump under the skin is smooth and not tender. It is more common at birth.
  • Brachial cleft cysts are also common in children and are seen at birth. They commonly form along the neck but may form under the ear along the jaw area and extend in openings in the ear canal. These cysts form when tissues in the area do not develop naturally during embryonic development.

Infectious causes of ear lumps

An infection may produce one or more ear lumps. Ear lumps due to local infectious causes may appear as boils or abscesses. Infections elsewhere in the body can cause the lymph nodes behind and below the ears near the jawbone to enlarge and feel like lumps.

An ear lump and tenderness in the bone behind your ear, along with pain and swelling, could indicate mastoiditis, an infection of the mastoid bone.

A preauricular pit is a small hole between the ear where it attaches to the face, above the ear canal. This is a congenital malformation where the sinus tract runs under the skin. A preauricular pit can become infected and form a lump or abscess.

Infectious causes of ear lumps include:

Traumatic causes of ear lumps

Minor and severe injuries can result in a localized swelling or ear lump, including:

  • head injury
  • sting or bite injuries
  • hematoma, a collection of blood in body tissues is common with severe injuries, such as from a motor vehicle accident or contact sports like boxing or wrestling.

A hematoma is a collection of blood in body tissues. It is common with severe injuries, such as motor vehicle accidents or contact sports like boxing or wrestling.

Treatment for a hematoma on the outer ear (auricle) includes draining and applying a pressure dressing. Treatment can prevent thickening of the ear, known as cauliflower ear.

A lump near the ear associated with a head injury may signal bleeding in the brain or another emergency and may have life threatening complications. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you have a lump near your ear due to a head injury.

Tumors that can cause ear lumps

Benign and malignant tumors of the skin or soft tissues can feel like lumps. In these cases, a biopsy or surgical removal of the lump can determine whether cancer is present.

Exostoses and osteomas, types of tumors that grow in the bones of the ear canal, can cause ear lumps. These bony tumors are not malignant.

Examples of benign tumors that can cause lumps include:

  • fibroma, a benign tumor composed of fibrous or connective tissue
  • lipoma, a benign fatty growth
  • nevi, moles of the skin
  • nonmelanoma skin cancers

Examples of malignant tumors that can cause lumps include:

  • lymphoma, cancer of the lymphatic system
  • melanoma, cancer arising in the melanocytes, or pigment-producing cells, in the skin or other parts of the body)
  • other skin cancers, including squamous cell and basal cell.

What other symptoms might occur with an ear lump?

An ear lump may accompany other symptoms, depending on the underlying disease, disorder, or condition. Certain conditions that cause ear lumps may also involve other body systems.

Related localized symptoms that may occur along with an ear lump

An ear lump may be accompanied by other localized symptoms, including:

  • itching
  • pus or discharge
  • redness, warmth, or swelling
  • tenderness or pain

Other symptoms that may occur along with an ear lump

An ear lump may accompany symptoms related to other body systems, including:

How are ear lumps diagnosed?

Ear lumps are often found during a routine ear exam when your doctor examines your ear canal. During your exam, you may also be given:

  • hearing test, known as audiometry
  • middle ear test, known as tympanometry
  • CT scan

To diagnose your condition, your doctor or licensed healthcare practitioner will ask you several questions related to your ear lump, including:

  • How long have you had the ear lump?
  • Are you experiencing any other symptoms along with the ear lump?
  • Is the ear lump getting bigger?
  • Is the ear lump painful or tender to the touch?

How are ear lumps treated?

Benign ear cysts grow slowly. Sometimes they shrink or go away on their own. Usually, you do not need treatment unless the cyst is causing you pain or affecting your hearing.

If a cyst becomes painful, it may be infected. Your doctor may prescribe antibiotics or suggest removing the cyst.

A tumor will sometimes increase in size over time. You may need surgery to remove the tumor if it:

  • causes pain
  • interferes with hearing
  • leads to frequent ear infections
  • causes a disfigurement

Your doctor may also refer you to a specialist. A dermatologist can treat skin-related ear lumps. An otolaryngologist treats ear lumps in the ear canal or under the skin around the ear.

What are the potential complications of an ear lump?

Left untreated, ear lumps due to abscesses or serious infections may lead to widespread infection in the body. 

Potential complications of cancerous ear lumps include cancer spreading, depending on the type and stage (extent) of the cancer.

Following your treatment plan for serious causes of lumps can help reduce your risk of complications, including:

Summary

Ear lumps can occur anywhere in or around the ear and have many causes, including injury, infection, inflammation, and tumors. They may be soft or firm, painful or painless, temporary or fast-growing. Ear lumps that persist may be a sign of a more serious condition.

Contact a doctor if you notice any symptoms of an ear lump, including redness, itching, swelling, discomfort, pain, or hearing loss. Depending on the cause of your ear lump, your doctor may prescribe medication or surgery or refer you to a specialist for further evaluation and treatment.

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Medical Reviewer: Nicole Leigh Aaronson, MD, MBA, CPE, FACS, FAAP
Last Review Date: 2022 Aug 29
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THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
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