What is ear swelling?
The sensation of swelling in, on or around your ear may cause it to feel warm, inflamed and tender. Many causes of swelling and inflammation are attributed to an infection, which occurs when bacteria, viruses or other microorganisms enter your body. Your immune system mounts a response to the microorganisms. It is this response by your immune system that produces the typical symptoms of infection, such as redness, warmth and swelling.
An ear swelling 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 the 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 swelling is otitis externa, commonly known as swimmer’s ear. This condition, which results from water getting into the outer ear canal, is often 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 similar to swimmer’s ear.
Swelling accompanied by fever and 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 your experience tenderness in the bone behind your ear, along with pain and swelling, you could have mastoiditis (infection of the mastoid bone behind the ear).
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. Ear swelling 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.
What other symptoms might occur with ear swelling?
Ear swelling may be accompanied by other symptoms, depending on the underlying disease, disorder or condition. Certain conditions that cause ear swelling may also involve other body systems.
Related localized symptoms that may occur along with ear swelling
Ear swelling may be accompanied by other localized symptoms including:
- Crusting or flaking skin
- Drainage or discharge from the ear
- Itchy ears
- Pain or tenderness
- Redness and warmth
Other symptoms that may occur along with ear swelling
Ear swelling 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 swelling 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. Ear swelling 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)
Sudden swelling of the face, lips or tongue
Throbbing or tenderness behind the ear, especially over the bone
What causes ear swelling?
Ear swelling may have many possible causes, including allergens (agents that cause allergies), infections, autoimmune disorders, or other causes, such as stress.
Allergic causes of ear swelling
Ear swelling 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 ear swelling
Ear swelling can also be caused by infections including:
Common cold (viral respiratory infection)
Mastoiditis (infection of the bone behind the ear)
Other viral or bacterial infections
Otitis externa (infection of the outer ear, commonly known as swimmer’s ear)
Otitis media with effusion (ear infection with swelling)
Other causes of ear swelling
Ear swelling can be caused by other factors such as:
- Foreign body in external canal
Serious or life-threatening causes of ear swelling
In some cases, swelling 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)
Questions for diagnosing the cause of ear swelling
To diagnose your condition, your doctor or licensed health care practitioner will ask you several questions related to your ear swelling including:
When did your ear swelling begin?
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?
An ear swelling is not usually serious, but it is important to determine the underlying cause to 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 including:
Mastoiditis (inflammation of the bone behind the ear)
Meningitis (infection or inflammation of the sac around the brain and spinal cord)
Recurring ear infections
- Speech or language impairment