When a Lump Appears Behind the Ear: What Could It Mean?

Lumps can form all around the body. Most of the time, they are harmless (benign). If you find a lump behind your ear, it might seem odd, but most lumps in this spot are easy to treat and do not cause any long-term problems.

Some of the most common causes of lumps behind the ear are infections and skin conditions. Less often, tumors can form behind the ear. Here's how to tell what the lump behind your ear might mean, how the condition can be treated, and when you should see a doctor.

Pain behind ear in area of mastoid process concept photo. Person holds his hand over area behind ear, where pain is suspected due to otitis media, inflammation, noise in ear, hearing loss

Getty Images / Shidlovski

What Counts as a Lump Behind the Ear?

A lump is a small- to medium-sized bump. A lump behind the ear can develop anywhere between the top of the ear down to the lobe. The lumps can feel soft or hard.

If you have a lump behind your ear, it might be tender or painful. Some lumps do not cause any discomfort.

What Causes a Lump Behind the Ear?

A lump can form behind the ear for several reasons. The most common causes of a lump in this spot are infections and skin conditions. Less frequently, tumors can develop here.

Infections

You might notice a lump behind your ear when you get sick. If you catch strep throat or an ear infection, the lymph nodes behind your ears can become swollen and inflamed.

Other common infections can also cause swollen lymph nodes, such as:

  • Abscessed or impacted teeth
  • Gum disease
  • Influenza or other upper respiratory infections
  • Lyme disease (an illness caused by a bacterium carried by ticks)
  • Mononucleosis (an infection caused by a herpes virus)
  • Oral herpes (an infection of the herpes simplex virus)
  • Sexually transmitted infections (STIs)
  • Tonsillitis (inflammation of the tonsils in the back of the throat)

Serious Infections

Skin infections can also cause lymph node swelling. In some cases, infected skin can lead to a growth called an abscess, which looks like a large pimple.

Mastoiditis, a bacterial infection affecting the mastoid bone behind the ear, can also cause a lump. This condition usually results from an untreated middle ear infection that spreads to the mastoid bone.

Other symptoms of mastoiditis include:

  • Ear drainage
  • Ear pain
  • Fever
  • Headache
  • Redness around the ear
  • Trouble hearing

Skin Conditions

If you have certain skin conditions, you might feel some lumps or bumps in the space behind your ear. Pimples, cysts, and lipomas can all occur in this area.

Acne

Acne is a common skin condition that produces pimples. Acne can appear in many parts of the body, but the face is the most common site. Pimples can also develop behind the ears.

Over-the-counter (OTC) acne creams and face washes may help treat mild acne. More severe acne may require prescription-strength medication. A pimple can also become infected. Try not to scratch or touch pimples to reduce the chances of infection.

Lipomas

Lipomas are a type of skin growth. The fatty lumps of tissue are not hard and can be moved around under the skin. They can form in various parts of the body, including behind the ears.

Lipomas are harmless but can cause discomfort. You usually do not need to treat a lipoma unless it is bothering you. In this case, you can have it removed.

Cysts

Cysts are made up of dead skin cells and oils. They will feel soft to the touch and often go away on their own. 

Cysts are not usually painful unless they become infected. If this happens, antibiotics may be necessary. If a cyst causes discomfort or is likely to cause problems because of where it is located, it might need to be removed.

Benign or Malignant Tumors

Tumors that form behind the ear can be harmless (benign) or cancerous (malignant). However, cancerous tumors behind the ear are not common.

If you have a lump behind your ear and your healthcare provider wants to rule out cancer, they will usually need to perform a biopsy, a procedure that involves removing a sample of tissue to examine it more closely.

Bumps that are cancerous have several characteristics that make them different from harmless, more common lumps. Malignant lumps are more likely to:

  • Be fixed in place
  • Be uneven or irregular in shape
  • Feel hard

Pain and discomfort are not necessarily indicators of a cancerous tumor. Some lumps that are harmless can hurt, while some malignant lumps do not cause any pain.

When to See a Doctor

If you find a lump behind your ear, you might be wondering if you need to seek medical attention for it. While most lumps behind your ear are not serious, there are some cases for which you should have a doctor take a look.

You should see a doctor if the lump behind your ear:

  • Appears out of nowhere
  • Is accompanied by other symptoms
  • Is painful or causes discomfort 

When you go to the doctor for a lump behind your ear, they will do a simple examination. They will ask you questions about the lump—such as when you first noticed it—to figure out what is causing it.

Sometimes, the lump behind your ear will be a swollen lymph node. If this is the case, you should go to the doctor if:

  • It is swollen, red, and painful.
  • It feels hard.
  • If it gets bigger or does not reduce in size after several weeks.
  • You have other unexplained symptoms such as fever, night sweats, or weight loss.

If you have swollen lymph nodes with these other symptoms, your doctor wish to perform some blood tests, a biopsy, or a computed tomography (CT) scan to help make the correct diagnosis.

Treatment

Most infections that cause a lump behind the ear will go away on their own. For example, a mild ear infection that causes swollen lymph nodes may resolve on its own. However, bacterial infections will require antibiotic treatment. 

Some skin conditions that can cause lumps behind the ears are easily treated with OTC or prescription medications. Other skin lumps, like cysts or lipomas, might need to be removed.

In the case of tumors, treatment depends on whether the tumor is benign or malignant. In most cases, surgery will be required to remove the tumor. The bigger the tumor, the more complex the surgery will be.

Summary

A lump behind the ear can have several possible causes, many of which are not serious. However, if the lump hurts, gets bigger, or is accompanied by other symptoms, it should be checked out by a doctor.

A Word From Verywell

If you find a lump behind your ear, you may not know what it is. Lumps can form anywhere on the body, including behind your ear. Most of the time, the cause is something that is not serious and that will get better on its own or with minimal treatment.

In rare cases, tumors can form behind the ear and require complex treatment. If you have a lump behind your ear and other symptoms, particularly if they show up suddenly, it's important to tell your doctor. They can determine what is causing it and decide on the best course of treatment.

Frequently Asked Questions

What counts as a lump behind the ear? 

A lump behind the ear is any raised bump, lump, or nodule. 

What causes a lump behind the ear? 

A lump may form behind the ear for several reasons, including infection, a skin condition, or a tumor.

How do I make a lump behind my ear go away? 

Most of the time, a lump will go away on its own. If a lump is not going away or is getting bigger, you should seek medical attention. If you have a skin infection and the redness and swelling get worse, you should see a doctor for treatment.

How can I tell if the lump behind my ear is cancerous? 

A cancerous (malignant) lump is more likely to be hard or irregular in shape than a lump that is harmless (benign). The only way to know for sure is to see your doctor and have them perform tests, such as a biopsy, to rule out cancer.

What type of doctor should I see for a lump behind my ear? 

Conditions involving the ears are best addressed by an otolaryngologist, an ear, nose, and throat (ENT) specialist. If you think the lump is caused by a skin condition, you should see a dermatologist. 

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7 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  5. Cleveland Clinic. Lipoma. Reviewed October 13, 2020.

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