Eczema can appear anywhere on your body — including your ears. 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.
While doctors are uncertain of the exact cause of eczema, they believe that several factors play a role – including an overactive immune system and bacterial imbalances in the skin. You may have a higher risk for developing ear eczema if your family has a history of eczema, asthma, or allergies.
Some of the different types of eczema that affect the ears include:
- Contact dermatitis – triggered by an immune system overreaction to an irritant or allergen.
- Atopic dermatitis – the most common form of eczema you likely picture when you think of the skin condition.
- Seborrheic dermatitis – triggered by an immune system overreaction to an overgrowth of a harmful yeast called malassezia on the skin.
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 include:
- Dry skin
- Crusty or oozing skin
- Leathery patches of skin
- Discolored rashes
Ear itching can be painful and intensely itchy, 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.
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.
Your 4-Step Guide for Ear Eczema Treatment
There are a variety of ways to treat ear eczema, depending on the type of eczema you have. Home remedies can help you lessen the frequency of your flare-ups, while getting a specific diagnosis from your primary healthcare provider can get you on prescription medications you may need. Because eczema isn’t curable, the goal with eczema treatment is to reduce itching, irritation, and infection.
Here are five steps to help you alleviate your ear eczema symptoms:
Avoid Common Allergens
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
- Poison ivy
If your ear eczema has popped up suddenly, consider whether you’re been in contact with any of these common irritants or allergens.
Use Products for Sensitive Skin
Harsh skincare and hygiene products that contain fragrances, dyes, or drying alcohols can exacerbate the symptoms of 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 labeled “hypoallergenic,” “fragrance-free,” or “for sensitive skin.”
Make Minor Lifestyle Adjustments
Tweaking everything from your hygiene practices to what you wear outside in the cold may help you to alleviate some of your pesky ear eczema symptoms.
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 your eczema multiple times a day with a fragrance- and preservative-free cream or ointment. Only do this if the eczema is outside the ear. 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.
Try Over-The-Counter Treatments or Ask Your Doctor About Prescription Medications
If you need rapid relief from some of your ear eczema symptoms, opt for over-the-counter solutions including ointments and moisturizers, or antihistamines for itch.
If your ear eczema is persisting without any signs of going away, it’s time to seek care from your primary healthcare provider or a board-certified dermatologist.
It’s best to contact your primary healthcare provider or a board-certified dermatologist as soon as you notice eczema-like symptoms. That way the provider can diagnose which form of eczema you may be experiencing. Having the proper diagnosis will ensure you’re receiving proper treatment.
Typically, your doctor can diagnose ear eczema after a simple physical exam. They may perform additional test to alleviate any doubt, which 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, they may prescribe you steroid or antibiotic ear drops. Just remember that these types of medications can have side effects, so they’re not meant to be a long-term solution.
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