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How Eczema Affects the Ears

Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board | Last reviewed: May 2023

Atopic dermatitis (eczema) sometimes affects the ears. When it does, it most commonly affects the outside skin of the ear and around the ear. Symptoms of ear eczema can be annoying and uncomfortable. They can also overlap with those of ear infections and other ear conditions.1-4

Symptoms of ear eczema

Typical ear eczema affects the outer skin of the ears. It also affects the area behind the ears where the earlobe meets the skull. Sometimes, ear eczema arises on the skin between the jawline and the ear.1-4

Like other areas of eczema, the affected skin is itchy and dry. It may be red or darker than other nearby skin. This is caused by the same things that cause eczema elsewhere – a weakened skin barrier and an overactive immune system.1

Dry skin, especially behind the ears, can crack over time. This can lead to painful wounds. Dry, inflamed, and cracked skin also increases the risk for skin infections.1

Separating ear eczema from other ear conditions

Rashes, dryness, and irritation of the ear can be caused by more than just eczema. Other conditions that can affect the ears include:2,3

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  • Ear infections
  • Seborrheic dermatitis
  • Psoriasis
  • Allergic reactions (contact dermatitis)

Each of these conditions may have its own treatment options. Telling them apart can be tricky, but it is important.2,3

Infections and seborrheic dermatitis

Unlike eczema, ear infections tend to occur inside the ear in the ear canal. They can lead to pain and drainage. Your doctor can usually see signs of inflammation and infection when they look in your ears.2,3

Seborrheic dermatitis is caused by an infection and can affect the inside of the ear. It is caused by an overgrowth of a fungus called Malassezia. People with seborrheic dermatitis usually also have dandruff or flaky, greasy peeling of the scalp or eyelids.2,3

Psoriasis versus eczema

Psoriasis can also look like eczema when it occurs around the ears. But people with psoriasis often have gray, scaly, raised plaques of thickened or dry skin. Their skin may also bleed when scraped. A history of eczema, allergies, or asthma (atopic health issues) in the past may help your doctor determine whether you have eczema or psoriasis.1,2

Contact dermatitis

Contact dermatitis is caused by an allergic reaction to something touching the skin. It can look similar to eczema and affect the outside of the ear. But contact dermatitis usually occurs after a new allergen is introduced. Around the ears, this could be new earrings, headphones, make-up, or lotion. Contact dermatitis usually goes away once the allergic trigger is gone.2-4

Treating ear eczema

Treating ear eczema and other similar issues depends on the underlying cause. For example, ear infections may need antibiotic drugs or ear drops. Stopping allergic reactions requires finding and removing the allergic trigger.2

Common methods of preventing or treating ear eczema include the following:2-4

  • Regularly moisturize with ointments (petroleum jelly is 1 option for the outside of the ears).
  • Use steroid-containing cream or ear drops if advised by your doctor.
  • Use a cotton ball to dab on creams. Do not push Q-tips or cotton balls directly into the ear.
  • Avoid itching or rubbing at the skin around the ears.
  • Use a humidifier to avoid dry air.
  • Gently keep the skin around the ears clean with non-irritating soap and warm water.
  • Avoid perfumes, lotions, soaps, or detergents with chemicals or fragrances in them.
  • Take over-the-counter antihistamine drugs that can reduce itch and inflammation.
  • Take all prescribed drugs and creams as your doctor recommends.

Dry skin around the ears can make it easier to develop an infection. If you notice blood, mucus, or other drainage from your ear, talk to your doctor. They may need to prescribe a new treatment option. Other signs to tell your doctor about include new ringing in the ears, ear pain, or trouble hearing.2-4