Red ears are not a sign of a serious health condition in most cases, although they can be uncomfortable.
In this article, learn about the potential causes of red ears, as well as when to see a doctor.
Causes of red ears
Red ears can be caused by a variety of conditions and situations, including:
Red ear syndrome
Red ear syndrome may affect one or both ears and its causes are not clear.
Image credit: Giorgio Lambru, Sarah Miller & Manjit S Matharu, The Journal of Headache and Pain, 2013
Red ear syndrome is a rare condition. It involves reddening and burning on the outside of the ear and can affect one or both ears. The episodes may only last a few seconds, or they can continue for several hours.
In some cases, heat, cold, or rubbing the ear may bring on symptoms. In other instances, the redness and burning may occur spontaneously.
The cause of red ear syndrome is not clear, but in young people, it appears to be associated with migraines.
Flushing and blushing are common causes of red ears. They result in a sudden reddening of the skin due to an increase in blood flow to the area.
Typically, flushing occurs because of an intense emotional reaction, such as anger or embarrassment.
Flushing can also develop because of a rapid change in temperature, alcohol use, and hormonal changes. Red ears due to flushing may also cause the ears to feel warm.
Sunburn may also lead to red ears. Sunburns occur after exposure to ultraviolet rays from the sun.
Tanning beds also give off UV rays and can lead to sunburn. Symptoms of red ears caused by sunburn may also include burning and tenderness.
Depending on the severity of the burn, the skin may even blister and peel.
Skin infections can also lead to red ears. Skin infections, such as cellulitis, typically occur due to bacteria. Bacteria can enter the body through cuts, bug bites, and dry skin.
Seborrheic eczema or seborrheic dermatitis is a common skin condition that can cause red ears.
Seborrheic eczema is characterized by red, scaly patches on the scalp. It can also cause redness on other parts of the body, such as the upper back and face and may affect the outer ear.
According to the National Eczema Association, the cause of seborrheic eczema is unknown. It is thought to be associated with genetics and the immune system's interaction with organisms that live on the skin.
In addition to redness, symptoms may include itchiness and white, crusty flakes on the skin.
The ears are most commonly affected by relapsing polychondritis, although the condition can affect other areas of the body, such as the nose, eyes, ribs, airways, and joints.
The exact cause of relapsing polychondritis is not fully understood, but researchers think it may occur because of an autoimmune disease.
In addition to red ears, other symptoms of relapsing polychondritis include swelling, pain, balance problems, and hearing impairment.
Aloe vera lotion may be used to treat mild sunburn.
Treatment for red ears will depend on the underlying cause. In some cases, treatment is not needed, such as when red ears are due to flushing.
According to the American Academy of Dermatology, a person can treat mild sunburns with an aloe vera lotion or over-the-counter medications, such as ibuprofen. They can also use a cool, damp towel applied to the skin.
More serious causes of red ears, such as a bacterial skin infection, will usually require medical treatment and antibiotics.
Treatment for relapsing polychondritis usually involves limiting symptoms to prevent damage to the cartilage. Corticosteroids and immune system medications may also be prescribed to reduce the frequency of relapses and complications.
Various medications have been used to treat red ear syndrome, but there is currently no standard treatment. Some people may find non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) useful.
Medication injected into the greater auricular nerve to block pain can also be recommended. The greater auricular nerve supplies feeling to the outer ear.
Red ears due to seborrheic eczema are often treated with an antifungal cream that is applied to the skin. If the symptoms are moderate to severe, a topical corticosteroid medication may be prescribed.
There may be some ways to cut the chances of developing red ears, depending on the cause.
Wearing sunscreen and keeping the ears protected with a hat can prevent red ears caused by sunburn.
Frequent and thorough hand-washing may reduce the chances of skin infections that lead to red ears. Avoiding picking at any scabs or piercings, cleaning and covering any open wounds on the ears, and moisturizing dry skin can also help prevent infections.
In other instances, it may not be possible to prevent red ears. For example, it is nearly impossible to stop blushing or flushing. Similarly, underlying medical conditions, such as relapsing polychondritis, cannot be prevented.
When to see a doctor
Red ears do not always require medical care, but a person should speak to a doctor if they are experiencing frequent and bothersome red ears, or if they have significant pain or hearing changes.
It is important to seek medical care to rule out a bacterial infection, such as cellulitis, especially if a fever is present. Other signs of an infection include pus oozing from the ears and tenderness or pain.
The outlook for people with red ears depends on the cause of the condition. When red ears occur due to a sunburn or skin irritation, symptoms usually clear up within a short time.
In other instances, red ears can be a symptom of a medical condition that requires treatment. For example, there is currently no cure for relapsing polychondritis or red ear syndrome, but symptoms can be managed.