A painful bump on or around the ear may be a boil, which occurs when a bacterial skin infection develops in a hair follicle or oil gland. Over time, pus collects in the lump. Boil sometimes go away, or pop, on their own without treatment.

In this article, we look at the common causes of boils on the ear and how to identify them. We also discuss treatment, home remedies, and when to see a doctor.

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Damage to the skin may cause a boil.
Image credit: DermNet New Zealand.

Boils, which are also known as furuncles or carbuncles, most often result from Staphylococcus aureus infections. However, other types of bacteria or fungi living on the surface of the skin can also lead to boils.

Boils occur when bacteria infect a hair follicle. Roughly 10–20% of the population are carriers of S. aureus. In people who are carriers, the bacteria normally live on the surface of the skin.

If a person has skin-to-skin contact with a carrier or someone with a boil, they may get the infection. The bacteria can also spread via contaminated objects. In most people, infections only occur when factors such as injury or friction break or compromise the skin’s natural barrier.

A boil may develop on the ear due to a person:

  • damaging the skin in or around the ear
  • using dirty earbuds or headphones
  • sharing earbuds or headphones with someone with the infection
  • swimming in unclean water
  • having an ear piercing that becomes irritated or infected
  • having exposure to chemicals in hair or beauty products

People may sometimes have difficulty distinguishing a boil from a pimple. A pimple is a small pustule that occurs when an oil-producing sebaceous gland becomes clogged, infected, and swollen.

Pimples result from excess oil production and a buildup of dead skin cells, dirt, and bacteria, whereas boils occur when a bacterial infection develops in a hair follicle or area of damaged skin. Pimples can also occur in the ear.

Learn more about the differences between boils and pimples.

Some people may confuse boils with cysts, which can also appear on the ear. Generally, cysts are not painful. They tend to be smaller than boils, which may be sore and appear discolored and swollen.

Learn more about the differences between boils and cysts.

A boil on the ear can cause discomfort or pain. Other symptoms may include:

  • itching of the skin on or around the boil
  • a red, hard lump under the skin
  • dry or flaky skin on top of the boil
  • liquid or pus oozing from the boil

Boils may lead to severe symptoms and complications, including cellulitis and sepsis.

Outer ear infections usually occur due to bacteria, and they can develop into boils. According to the authors of a 2020 article, 1 in 3 people with outer ear infections develop severe symptoms that interfere with their everyday lives.

Without treatment, the infection responsible for a boil may progress, creating a cluster of boils known as a carbuncle. Carbuncles tend to be 2–10 centimeters in diameter. A person can have a single carbuncle or several carbuncles at one time.

Some boils resolve on their own without medical treatment. However, a boil can reappear after healing on its own or after treatment with medication or surgery. A person who has three or more boils in a year may have a condition called recurrent furunculosis.

A doctor can diagnose a boil based on its appearance. They will likely ask a person to describe the extent and duration of their symptoms.

The doctor will want to know when a person first noticed the boil, whether it has changed in size or shape, and whether they have tried any at-home or over-the-counter (OTC) treatments.

Treatments vary depending on the size of the boil and the severity of a person’s symptoms.

A doctor can prescribe oral or topical antibiotics to help kill the bacteria inside the boil and prevent the infection from spreading to other parts of the body.

They can also surgically drain large boils. After draining the boil, they will pack the cavity with disinfectant-soaked gauze. The gauze should remain in place for 1–2 days.

People can also wash the affected area with antibacterial soap. OTC pain relievers, such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen, can help relieve pain and reduce swelling. However, topical antibiotic ointment will not cure the boil, as it will not penetrate the infected skin.

Many boils get better without medical treatment. People should avoid squeezing, poking, or attempting to pop a boil. Putting pressure on a boil may cause it to rupture and spill its contents into the surrounding tissue.

People can try the following to help speed up the healing process:

  • applying a warm compress to encourage the boil to drain
  • covering the boil with a sterile gauze or dressing once it has burst
  • washing the hands regularly and thoroughly
  • disinfecting or replacing personal care items, including hairbrushes, towels, and shower caps
  • washing hats, bedding, earbuds, and any other items that come into contact with the boil
  • considering using different personal hygiene, hair, and beauty products
  • taking OTC pain relievers, if necessary

Learn more about home remedies for boils.

Boils can lead to extreme discomfort and pain. Thankfully, people can prevent boils on the ear by:

  • washing the skin regularly
  • cleaning cuts and open wounds on the skin carefully
  • avoiding sharing towels, washcloths, and other personal care items
  • avoiding sharing earbuds or headphones
  • disinfecting high-touch surfaces and objects that come into contact with the ears frequently
  • eating a healthful diet and exercising regularly to boost the immune system

Although a boil can heal on its own, a person should see a doctor for a boil that does not heal within 2 weeks. People should seek immediate medical attention if they develop a boil in a sensitive area, such as the inner ear, spine, or face.

It is important to inform a doctor if a boil suddenly gets bigger or changes shape or texture.

A boil on the ear occurs when a bacterial or fungal infection develops in one or more hair follicles in or around the ear.

Most boils rupture and heal on their own. However, large or recurring boils may require antibiotic treatment or surgery.