Ear eczema

Dec, 12, 2023

Ear eczema

They say your ears itch when someone’s talking about you – but if it’s accompanied by a rash, redness, inflammation and weeping,  it may bea skin condition called ear eczema (or otitis externa). The good news? Your doctor will be able to diagnose the cause of the itching, and there are simple, straightforward treatment options available.

What is ear eczema?

Eczema is a common dermatological condition that can affect the skin on any part of the body – including the ears. Characterised by red, itching, flaking and inflamed skin, ear eczema can affect every part of the ear, from the earlobes to the opening of the ear, the ear canal and even the eardrum. The ear folds, backs of the ears, and areas where the ears meet the face are also areas where eczema commonly develops.

There are two primary types of ear eczema – outer ear eczema, which affects the external ear structures, including the ear lobes, the opening of the ears, and folds of skin, and even the ear canal, which leads to the eardrum.

What causes ear eczema?

There are several types of eczema, which all have different causes.

  • Atopic eczema usually occurs behind the ear or where the earlobe meets your face but can also appear in the ear canal. It’s an inherited form of eczema in people who have more sensitive skin that can’t hold in moisture and dries out quickly.
  • Seborrheic eczema (or dermatitis) occurs on parts of the body with sebaceous glands – glands that produce sebum or oil. This can start as redness and a scaly appearance at the entrance to the ear but can cause dermatitis of the ear canal as well.
  • Asteatotic eczema affects older people and is the result of changes in climate. Overwashing the area, cold or windy weather, heating, low humidity indoors and air-conditioning can all contribute to this type of ear eczema.
  • Irritant and allergic contact dermatitis can develop due to exposure to substances touching the ear. Shampoos and hair gels, hair spray, perm solution, hair dye and perfume can all cause irritant contact dermatitis. Eczema can also develop as an allergic reaction to any of the above, as well as earrings, ear appliances (hearing aids and moulds, glasses, headphones and earphones, mobile phone receivers, and earplugs), cosmetics, toiletries, and topical medications.
  • Eczema of the ear canal can also be caused by swimmer’s ear, which develops when water, shampoo or soap enters and irritates the ear canal, becoming infected. Scratching or using cotton buds can also damage the skin, leading to eczema of the ear canal.

Ear eczema symptoms

Ear eczema symptoms are similar to eczema on any other part of the body: itchy, dry or crusty patches of skin, a discoloured rash, swelling, redness, and bumps on the skin. You may also notice clear weeping discharge if you have eczema of the ear canal.

Ear eczema treatment

The first step in finding the right ear eczema treatment is identifying the underlying cause – so start by booking a visit with your GP, who can help you determine why the eczema has occurred and what to do about it.

A common treatment for atopic seborrhoeic or asteatotic ear eczema involves applying a medical-grade moisturiser (your doctor will advise you which one to use). You may also be prescribed a topical steroid to help with inflammation, and for seborrhoeic eczema, you may also be given an antifungal topical medication.

If you have eczema of the ear canal, your doctor may prescribe steroid drops to help clear it up, and if allergic contact dermatitis is the cause, your GP may refer you to a dermatologist. 

Ear eczema home remedies

While it’s important to see your doctor for any health-related matters, ear eczema home treatment may be possible in certain situations.

Contact dermatitis, in particular, may be manageable at home by simply removing the substance or item causing the allergic reaction – though identifying the cause of the irritation can take some trial and error. Try changing your laundry detergent or fabric softener, taking out earrings (or using jewellery made from a different metal) or avoiding your usual cosmetics or hair products – and if you need to reduce itching, try an over-the-counter hydrocortisone cream.

Other home remedies that may help include holding a cool compress to the affected area to reduce itching, applying a moisturiser or virgin coconut oil to keep the area hydrated, and taking lukewarm (not hot) showers.

Ear eczema prevention

While you may experience ongoing bouts of ear eczema, knowing the cause is key to preventing and managing flare-ups.

Continuing to moisturise your ears and using sensitive skincare can help keep the skin healthy. Drinking two litres of water a day helps keep skin hydrated, as does taking warm (not hot) showers and moisturising straight after.

Where possible, avoid sudden changes in temperature and humidity, and when you know which substances trigger your ear eczema, avoid them. And if you do experience a flare-up, try not to scratch dry patches, as this can lead to infection.

While ear eczema can be uncomfortable, treatment and management options are available. If you’re experiencing any ear eczema symptoms, contact your GP for diagnosis, treatment and a plan to manage flare-ups.

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