What are the Common Causes of Ear Swelling?

Alex Tree

Ear swelling, both temporary and permanent, can be caused by allergies, injuries, or something as common as water. Direct injury, for example, can lead to permanent swelling of the ear due to damage to the cartilage. Contact dermatitis, a type of allergy, is a particularly common cause of swollen ears, especially in women and men who get an ear pierced and insert a type of metal to which they are allergic. Swimming in polluted water or getting shower water trapped in the ear canal can cause swimmer’s ear, which typically causes pain and swollen ears. In most cases of swollen ears, the swelling goes away once the cause is treated, but this is not always the case.

Allergies may cause ear swelling.
Allergies may cause ear swelling.

One common cause of ear swelling is blunt trauma, which may be administered to the ear by a physical assault, a fall, or during the course of a sporting exercise. In addition to swelling, such an injury is often accompanied by broken bones and other visible damage, such as abrasions and bruises. A common injury leading from blunt trauma to an ear is cauliflower ear, where the outer ear cartilage is damaged so much that it cannot receive proper nourishment and blood flow. This condition, which often presents in sports players who regularly engage in physical activities that impact their ears, can cause permanent ear swelling and general ear misshaping.

Direct injury to the ear may cause ear swelling.
Direct injury to the ear may cause ear swelling.

Another common cause of swelling in the ear are allergies that often result in contact dermatitis. Sometimes the metals in an earring will bother the skin, resulting in the affected skin becoming irritated and possibly swollen. A couple of metals that can cause contact dermatitis in some people are nickel and chromium. Another common type of irritant that can cause ear swelling is an insect bite or sting, often inflicted by a bee, wasp, or ant. Different people are allergic to different substances, so the reactions resulting from these kinds of irritants may vary significantly from person to person.

If a pierced ear becomes infected, the lobe may become swollen and painful.
If a pierced ear becomes infected, the lobe may become swollen and painful.

A condition called swimmer’s ear typically presents with swelling and pain or tenderness in and around the ear. This condition gets its name because it usually develops due to exposure to pathogens in water. When these pathogens get into the ear canal, they can infect the ear and result in this condition. Common tactics to avoid this condition include not swimming in polluted water, drying the ears out manually to prevent the pathogens from festering, and utilizing properly fitted earplugs.

Getting water trapped in the ear canal can cause pain and swollen ears.
Getting water trapped in the ear canal can cause pain and swollen ears.
Ear swelling will usually go away once the area receives treatment.
Ear swelling will usually go away once the area receives treatment.

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Discussion Comments


My 2-year-old brother's right ear started to swell up and I don't really know why. It's really red and really swollen on the top half of his ear. It became really thick and hard and warm, and almost doubled in size compared to his left one. I'm really worried and was hoping that you could tell me what's wrong.


My ear is swollen and purple on the outside but the inside is fine, and it hurts to the touch. I haven't had a bite or trauma. What is it?


@Iluviaporos - It might be nickel that's causing your mother's ears to swell. Did she try using earrings that were certified 100% gold?

Of course there are plenty of alternatives for her. She could even use plastic earrings if metal is just generally too rough on her ears.

I tend to forget to put earrings in at all, and then have to reopen my ears when I remember. That often makes my ears a bit swollen for a few days, but generally it's not too bad.


For a while I would clean out my ears by letting hot water run into them when I was in the shower.

My sister is an audiologist (which is kind of like an optometrist, but for ears) and she scolded me when she heard that I did that.

Apparently it's really easy to give yourself swimmer's ear this way. I've never actually done that myself, but judging from the description in the article, I really don't want to.

My sister also gets annoyed when people do things like candling, which is basically dripping hot wax in your ear to clear it.

So, I guess the moral of the story is don't stick anything in your ears! Unless you are an audiologist and know how to do it for a living.


My mother is convinced that she is allergic to gold earrings, because she has found they tend to make her ears swell up.

But, I'm pretty sure gold is generally considered to be completely hypoallergenic, so it makes me think she has probably had a reaction to something else, like nickel or chromium, that was mixed with the gold.

Pure gold hardly ever gets used, after all, because it's just too soft.

At any rate, the ear swelling really hurts, so she won't even try gold earrings now, which is a shame because I think they would suit her coloring much better than silver ones.

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