Ear eczema is characterized by dry, itchy, and discolored skin either in, on, or around your ears. While it can be persistent, irritating, and even painful, there are ways to find relief.
Doctors are uncertain of the exact cause of ear eczema, but they believe several factors play a role – including an overactive immune system and bacterial imbalances in the skin’s microbiome. You may have a higher risk for developing ear eczema if your family has a history of eczema, asthma, or allergies.
What is Ear Eczema?
Eczema Rash Behind Ear vs. in the Ear Canal
You may experience your eczema symptoms around the outside of your ear, inside your ear canal, or both. The rash could start internally and move externally, or vice versa.
External ear eczema is relatively easy to spot. You will see and feel those patches of dry, irritated, and discolored skin on the ear, in the creases behind the ear, and under the earlobe. It can sometimes be confused with psoriasis.
Eczema of the ear canal consists of dry, itchy patches inside the ear. Eczema in this location can inflame the ear canal and eardrum, which can cause otitis externa, or “swimmer’s ear.” In severe cases, the internal swelling can lead to ringing in the ears (tinnitus) or reduced hearing.
Types of Eczema that Affect the Ears
Contact dermatitis is triggered by an immune system overreaction to an irritant or allergen. Your ears can actually come into contact with quite a few irritants or allergens, including shampoos, conditioners, face washes, cosmetics, and lotions. Earbuds, headphones, and earplugs can also be made out of irritating plastics, rubbers, or metals. The metals in earrings (particularly gold or nickel) can also trigger a flare-up of contact dermatitis on the ears.
Atopic dermatitis is the most common form of eczema, and the type of eczema you most likely picture when you think of the skin condition. Within the context of ear eczema, it most commonly occurs behind the ears and at the junction between the earlobe and the face.
Seborrheic dermatitis is triggered by an immune system overreaction to an overgrowth of a harmful yeast called Malassezia on the skin. While it normally affects the scalp and face, it can also occur on a person’s ears, particularly at the hairline behind the ear or within the ear canal.
Also called eczema craquelé, asteatotic eczema is most common in the elderly and is typically triggered by dryness and dehydration, particularly in the winter months, when humidity is lower. It can occur on the outside of the ear and within the ear canal.
Ear Eczema Symptoms
Overall, ear eczema symptoms are very similar to the symptoms of atopic dermatitis on other areas of the body. Ear eczema looks like a discolored, itchy rash that develops anywhere on the outside or inside of the ear. It can appear as patches of scaly, rough, or discolored skin.
Common symptoms of ear eczema include:
- Dry skin
- Crusty or oozing skin
- Leathery patches of skin
- Discolored rashes
Ear itching can be painful and intense, which can lead to:
- Inflamed, or bleeding skin
- Infected skin in the ear canal
- Clear discharge from the ear canal
- Psychological distress
- Sleep loss
Ear eczema is not contagious. Even if you have an active rash, you cannot pass the condition to another person.
However, if you have or regularly get eczema in your ears, you are also at a higher risk for otitis externa, an ear infection commonly known as swimmer’s ear.
Your 4-Step Guide for Ear Eczema Treatment
There are a variety of ways to manage ear eczema, depending on the type of eczema you have. Lifestyle adjustments can help. Your dermatologist or primary healthcare prover can diagnose the specific type of eczema you have and prescribe appropriate medications. Because eczema isn’t curable, the goal with ear eczema treatment is to reduce itching and irritation.
Here are four steps to help you alleviate your ear eczema symptoms.
1. Avoid Common Allergens
As we mentioned above, contact dermatitis is one of the seven types of eczema, and it occurs when your skin comes into contact with an irritant or allergen. It can show up anywhere, including the ears. Common culprits of contact dermatitis include:
- Rough fabrics like wool
- Scented soaps, lotions, and perfumes
- Jewelry made of nickel, copper, or cobalt
Detergents and household cleaners, including bleach
If your ear eczema has popped up suddenly, consider whether you’re been in contact with any of these common irritants or allergens.
2. Use Products for Sensitive Skin
Harsh skincare and hygiene products that contain fragrances, dyes, or drying alcohols can exacerbate the symptoms of ear eczema. It’s important to not only use soaps, detergents, moisturizers, and cosmetics formulated with sensitive skin in mind — but also use a gentle shampoo, conditioner, and other hair care products, as they run off the hair and over the ears. Look for products for eczema-prone skin, particularly those labeled “hypoallergenic” and “fragrance-free.”
3. Make Minor Lifestyle Adjustments
Tweaking everything from your hygiene practices to what you wear outside in the cold may be helpful in managing your ear eczema.
Because hot water can irritate and worsen eczema, opt for a lukewarm shower or bath. Try to limit your time in the water to 15 minutes maximum. When you’re done, moisturize the skin behind your ears with a fragrance-free cream or ointment. Only do this if the eczema is outside the ear. It’s unlikely you’ll find products that are specifically designated as “ear eczema cream,” so check that the cream can be safely applied everywhere on the body.
Avoid using cotton swabs or inserting anything deep into your ear canal. Nothing smaller than your finger should go in your ear.
Wear a warm covering over your ears when you are out in cold weather.
4. Ask Your Doctor About Prescription Medications
Contact your primary healthcare provider or a board-certified dermatologist as soon as you notice eczema-like symptoms, or if lifestyle adjustments aren't helping with your ear eczema. That way the provider can diagnose which form of eczema you may be experiencing. Having the proper diagnosis ensures you’ll receive the right form of treatment.
Typically, your doctor can diagnose ear eczema after a simple physical exam, but they may perform additional tests to alleviate doubt. These may include:
- An allergy skin test (patch test)
- A blood test, to determine if the cause of the rash could be a condition other than eczema
- A skin biopsy, to differentiate one type of eczema from another
For eczema in your ear canal, your doctor may prescribe a topical steroid or antibiotic ear drops.
Need to meet with your doctor? Here’s how to get the most out of your next dermatologist appointment.
Incorporate Gladskin Into Your Routine
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