What Causes Red Ears?

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Red ears are usually harmless, but they could also be a symptom of a health condition. Other symptoms that you have will help you determine what is causing your ears to turn red and whether you need any treatment.

a woman with red ears holding her head

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Causes

Sunburn

A sunburn is caused by overexposure to ultraviolet (UV) rays from the sun. It is an inflammatory reaction that damages the outer layers of your skin. The damage to skin cells causes the skin to become red and painful.

In some cases of sunburn, your skin may start to peel away to rid the body of the damaged skin cells. In severe cases, you may develop blisters on your skin.

Sunburns are incredibly common, and it’s estimated that more than 30% of the population experiences at least one sunburn every year, with 50% of young adults getting a sunburn at least once a year.

Sunburns affect people in different ways, and people who are at highest risk include those who:

  • Have sensitive skin
  • Exercise outdoors more frequently
  • Wear less or no sunscreen
  • Are obese
  • Are young adults

Sunburns can be dangerous, and research suggests that frequent sunburns during childhood or adolescence can significantly increase the risk of skin cancer later in life.

Flushing

Flushing is a temporary physiological reaction that can cause redness over your face, ears, and other parts of your body. Your skin becomes red because blood flow to the area increases and blood vessels under your skin become dilated.

It typically occurs as a result of embarrassment or anger, but it can also be caused by health conditions such as Cushing’s syndrome, where there is too much of the hormone cortisol in your body.

Other causes of flushing can include:

  • Alcohol
  • Spicy food
  • Fever
  • Mental disorders, such as anxiety
  • Neurological disorders, such as Parkinson’s disease
  • Hormonal disorders, such as menopause
  • Carcinoid syndrome, a disease that occurs when a carcinoid tumor—a slow-growing tumor that appear all over your body—releases chemicals into the bloodstream
  • Mastocytosis, a rare disease in the skin caused by having too many immune cells called mast cells
  • Anaphylaxis, which refers to a severe allergic reaction
  • Thyroid cancer
  • Pancreatic tumors
  • Some medications such as opiates, NSAIDs, or anticancer drugs
  • Skin conditions such as rosacea

Since flushing can be both harmless and serious, it’s important to address it with your doctor if it occurs frequently, doesn’t go away, or is associated with other symptoms.

When Should I Worry About Red Ear?

If your red ear is accompanied by pain, burning, or other uncomfortable sensations, you should see your doctor. 

Seborrheic Eczema

Seborrheic eczema is a skin condition that causes red ears, scaly patches of skin, and dandruff. It typically affects the scalp, but it can also occur on other parts of the body, such as your face, ears, chest, and upper back.

The condition typically occurs in the first three months of an infant’s life, during puberty, and in adulthood between the ages of 40 and 60. It is estimated that roughly 1% to 3% of people have seborrheic eczema.

The exact cause of the condition isn’t well known, but studies suggest that the overproduction of oil from the skin and abnormal growth of fungus on the skin can lead to its development.

Research has also found it to be associated with conditions such as:

It is generally a harmless condition that can be managed with OTC or prescription medications.

Relapsing Polychondritis

Relapsing polychondritis is a rare disease and affects only three to four people per million. It causes cartilage and other tissues of the body to become swollen and inflamed.

The main symptoms of the disease include swelling and inflammation of the ear, nose, and joint cartilage. It can also affect the airways, ribs, and eyes. In rare cases, it can cause problems in the heart, veins, skin, kidneys, and nervous system. Symptoms can include:

  • Pain and swelling of the ear
  • Outer ear damage
  • Inner ear swelling
  • Hearing loss
  • Nausea
  • Dizziness
  • Joint pain
  • Swelling of the voice box
  • A narrow or blocked trachea
  • Coughing or wheezing
  • Hoarseness
  • Swelling in the eye
  • Inflammation and damage of the nasal cartilage

The cause of relapsing polychondritis isn’t clear, but experts believe that it is an autoimmune disease that could be genetic. It has also been associated with diseases such as Hodgkin’s lymphoma, Crohn’s disease, and type 1 diabetes.

Erythromelalgia

Erythromelalgia is a rare disease that affects roughly 1.3 out of every 100,000 people per year. Symptoms include intense and burning pain in your hands and feet, which is accompanied by severe skin redness and a higher skin temperature.

The condition can spread to other parts of the body, including the face and ears. It causes flare-ups and can present with other symptoms such as tingling.

The cause of this disease is thought to be genetic, specifically because of mutations in the SCN9A gene. It can be passed down through generations as well.

Are Red Ears Genetic?

Some conditions associated with red ears may have a genetic component, such as flushing and erythromelalgia.

Infection

Infection can also cause red ears, typically a skin infection such as cellulitis or erysipelas. However, red ears can also be a symptom of an outer ear infection such as swimmer’s ear:

  • In cellulitis, the main symptoms are red and swelling in areas of the skin where there is pain. The area of the body often affected by cellulitis are the feet and legs, but it can develop anywhere on the body. It can be caused by several different types of bacteria, but one of the most common causes is group A streptococcus. The infection is not contagious and usually gets in the body through open wounds. 
  • Erysipelas, also known as St. Anthony’s fire, only affects the upper layers of the skin. It is also caused by bacteria, mainly group A streptococcus. It also gets in the body through an open cut or sore. Erysipelas affects the face, legs, arms, and torso, and is commonly found in infants and older adults.
  • Swimmer’s ear is caused by water getting trapped in the canal, which allows bacteria to grow. It can also be caused by a lack of earwax, ear injury, or skin conditions such as eczema or psoriasis. The main symptom of swimmer’s ear is typically ear pain, but people with this infection can also have red ears.
  • Perichondritis can also cause red ears. It affects the skin and tissue around the outer ear cartilage and is caused by bacteria, mainly, Pseudomonas aeruginosa. The bacteria that cause the infection usually cause it following an ear injury.

The main symptoms of perichondritis are pain and a red and swollen ear, but in some cases, fever and fluid draining from the affected area will also be present.

Red Ear Syndrome

Red ear syndrome is an incredibly rare disorder. It causes burning and redness in the ear that can last anywhere from a few seconds to a few hours. For people with the condition, flare-ups can occur several times a day to a handful of times per year.

Although the cause of the disorder isn’t clear, it’s thought that it could be caused by issues with the function of the cervical spine nerves, temporomandibular joint, or circuits within the brainstem. The condition has also been associated with migraines.

The main symptoms associated with red ear syndrome are pain and burning of the ears. Although having red ear syndrome can be uncomfortable, the condition itself is not serious.

Treatments

The treatment for red ears depends on what causes it.

Sunburn

Treatment of sunburn should begin as soon as you realize you have one. Although sunburns will heal on their own, there are things you can do to soothe the pain, such as:  

  • Take cool baths or showers
  • Use aloe vera or a soy-based moisturizer
  • Use a hydrocortisone cream in severe cases
  • Take OTC medications for pain and swelling, such as ibuprofen
  • Avoid exposure to the sun and wear clothing that is tightly woven

Flushing

If there are certain triggers such as spicy food or anxiety-inducing situations, avoiding the trigger can help. If the cause is a health condition, your doctor will treat it, which will eventually remedy the flushing.

Seborrheic Eczema

Mild cases of seborrheic eczema are typically treated using OTC and prescription medications such as a dandruff shampoo with selenium, zinc pyrithione, or coal tar. Your doctor may also prescribe an antifungal shampoo with ciclopirox.

For more severe cases, shampoos with betamethasone valerate, clobetasol, or fluocinolone may be prescribed. To help with symptoms on the face, including the ears, topical antifungals, corticosteroids, and calcineurin inhibitors will be used.

Relapsing Polychondritis

The standard treatment for relapsing polychondritis includes corticosteroid medications such as prednisone, aspirin, or NSAIDs such as dapsone or colchicine. Immunosuppressants may also be used in more serious cases. For the most extreme cases, heart valve replacement or surgical implantation of a breathing tube may be needed.

Erythromelalgia

There is no one treatment for erythromelalgia because not all types of therapies will work for everyone with the condition. It may go away on its own, but doctors typically advise people to avoid triggers that could induce a flare-up.

Treatments that may be effective include:

  • Topical creams
  • Oral medications
  • Anesthetics
  • Cognitive behavioral therapy
  • Epidural anesthesia
  • Nerve blocks
  • Surgical procedures

Infection

Bacterial infections typically require antibiotics, as is the case with cellulitis, St. Anthony’s fire, perichondritis, and swimmer’s ear. Antifungals may be used if the infection is caused by fungus overgrowth. Since there are no medications designed to fight off viruses, people with viral infections will recover with rest and plenty of fluids. 

Red Ear Syndrome

Pain-relieving medications are typically used to treat red ear syndrome. Other types of medications that can be used include:  

  • Tricyclic antidepressants
  • Beta blockers
  • Calcium blockers
  • Anticonvulsants
  • Serotonergic agonists and antagonists (medications designed to activate or deactivate serotonin receptors)
  • Topical steroids or lidocaine
  • Nerve blockers 

Home remedies for red ears will work only if they target the cause. Before trying any home remedies, see your doctor for a proper diagnosis.

When To See a Doctor

If your red ears are not caused by flushing or sunburn and present with other symptoms, call your doctor. They can help determine the cause and treatment.

Frequently Asked Questions

What could cause ears to get red and hot?

The most common and harmless cause of red and hot ears is flushing. When flushing occurs, it causes blood vessels in the ears to dilate, turning them red and causing them to feel hot to the touch. It is often driven by an emotional reaction.

How do you treat red ears?

Red ear treatment depends on the cause. For example, if red ears are caused by flushing, no treatment is required. If it is caused by red ear syndrome, different medications may be required to heal the redness of the ears.

What could cause red and swollen ears?

Red and swollen ears are often caused by a condition known as relapsing polychondritis. However, they can also be caused by an infection of the ear such as cellulitis or perichondritis.

What could cause red and itchy ears?

The most common cause of red and itchy ears is seborrheic eczema. This condition is characterized by scaly patches on the skin and redness. In infants, it is called cradle cap.

Summary

Red ears are common, and they are not usually a cause for concern because you can get them if you are embarrassed or have a sunburn. However, if you have red ears plus other concerning symptoms, talk to your doctor and find out what's causing your red ears.

A Word From Verywell

Red ears can be brought on by many different triggers or caused by certain health conditions like infections. If you are unsure of what is causing your red ears or are worried they could be a symptom of another condition, call your doctor about any questions or concerns you may have.

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15 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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