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AWARENESS CENTER

Ear Eczema: Symptoms, Causes, and Treatment

Posted on June 22, 2021
Medically reviewed by
Kevin Berman, M.D., Ph.D.
Article written by
Sarah Winfrey

Many MyEczemaTeam members report experiencing eczema symptoms in, on, or around their ears. Dry, scaly, itchy ears can be uncomfortable and frustrating to deal with. However, there are ways of treating ear eczema, including systemic treatments and at-home care. If you develop eczema on your ears, talk to your doctor about the best way to manage it.

Understanding Ear Eczema and Its Symptoms

Eczema, or atopic dermatitis (atopic eczema), is an inflammatory skin condition that results in dry, rough skin with intense itching and pain. The skin can also swell, thicken, and develop scales, cracks, crusting, or pustules. Eczema typically first affects the face, hands, and feet. It also commonly develops where the skin creases or flexes, including the wrists, ankles, neck, and creases in the elbows and knees.

Eczema can also appear in different parts of the ear and its structures, including the:

  • Pinna — The entire external ear, including the lobe and cartilage
  • Meatus — The opening of the ear
  • External auditory canal — The ear canal, which comprises bone and skin and leads to the eardrum
  • Tympanic membrane — The eardrum

According to the National Eczema Society, eczema commonly affects the back of the ear, the folds of the ears, and the site where the face joins with the ear. One MyEczemaTeam member shared that they “get eczema inside of my nose, in my ears, and behind my ears.”

Some people diagnosed with eczema experience it on their ears from the beginning. Others find that it shows up on the ears later. As one member explained, “I’ve had eczema since I was 6. It finally cleared up in my late 20s. Now, in my 50s, I have it in my ears and on my scalp. My ears are bad and itch like mad.”

As with other types of eczema, ear eczema causes discolored, inflamed, itchy patches of skin. Alongside dryness and irritation, ear eczema can also lead to scabbing or oozing (weeping). Inflammation in the ear canal may also cause a person to feel that they cannot hear as well as usual. One MyEczemaTeam member shared, “My ears started itching many years ago … . The flakiness started, and the itching and hurting became horrible.” The member described experiencing “ears that are so crusty and scaly that the scales barely come off in water.”

What Causes Eczema on the Ears?

Eczema on any part of the body — including the ears — can be triggered by certain environmental factors, such as soaps, shampoos, and other irritating substances. These triggers can vary from person to person, causing periods of worsened symptoms known as flares or flare-ups.

There are several particular types of eczema that may cause symptoms to appear in, on, or around the ears.

Atopic Dermatitis

Atopic dermatitis — more commonly known as atopic eczema or just eczema — is the most common type of eczema. Atopic dermatitis causes the skin to become dry, itchy, and inflamed. When scratched, this skin may become irritated or injured, potentially leading to open areas prone to infection. Atopic dermatitis in the ears frequently develops in the area where the earlobe meets the face. When severe, it can lead to cracks (fissures) that are painful and often secondarily infected.

Allergic Eczema

Allergic eczema is a form of contact dermatitis that occurs when an irritant comes into contact with the skin, triggering eczema symptoms. When allergic contact eczema occurs on your ears, it usually means you came into contact with something that you’re allergic to (an allergen). This allergic reaction can occur in response to many different irritants, such as:

  • Metal in an earring
  • Makeup
  • Hair products
  • Substances you had on your hands before touching your ears

Asteatotic Eczema

Asteatotic eczema appears as extremely dry, scaly skin and usually affects older adults. This form of eczema is triggered by changes in climate. Several factors can exacerbate the symptoms, including:

  • Washing your ears too often
  • Spending a lot of time outdoors in windy or dry weather
  • Living in an area with extremely low humidity
  • Using central heating or air conditioning without an attached humidifier

Seborrheic Dermatitis

Seborrheic dermatitis, or seborrheic eczema, can occur on any area of the body where sebaceous glands are found — mostly the trunk, face, scalp, and ears. Seborrheic dermatitis may sometimes only cause itching and discoloration at the opening of the ear canal. However, more severe seborrheic dermatitis can lead to crusting and discolored cracks that run across the ears, sometimes even extending to involve the neck or face. This condition can border with psoriasis, another inflammatory skin condition characterized by discolored, scaly skin. Psoriasis, too, often affects the inner and outer ears, as well as the skin of the scalp.

Managing Ear Eczema

There are a number of ways to deal with ear eczema. Be sure to talk to your health care provider or a dermatologist about the best eczema treatment for your ears — especially if you think you need prescription medication.

Avoid Your Triggers

As with most types of eczema, determining what factors trigger your ear eczema symptoms is key to controlling the symptoms. Once you know what causes your ear eczema, you’ll know what you need to avoid to prevent flares. Triggers for ear eczema can include normal allergy triggers, certain foods, harsh soaps, weather conditions, and more. Often, identifying specific triggers can be difficult, so your treatment plan may rely on treating your rash once it appears, rather than preventing it.

Triggers can differ from person to person. One MyEczemaTeam member wrote, “I can’t wear glasses because it triggers my eczema behind my ears.”

Another member explained, “Steroid cream and lotions seem to irritate my ear eczema.”

Use Nonirritating Hair Care Products

Certain hair care products can easily end up on your ears. If their ingredients trigger your eczema, you can end up with itchiness and flakiness — even if you are careful to protect your ears most of the time.

You may be able to identify which specific ingredients trigger your eczema. Sometimes, though, you may have to use trial and error. Some shampoos, conditioners, hair sprays, and other products are designed to be nonirritating. The National Eczema Association’s Seal of Acceptance can help you find products that are safe for sensitive skin that’s prone to eczema. If you suspect you have an allergy to an ingredient in your hair products, discuss allergy patch testing with your dermatologist.

Protect Skin From Extreme Temperatures

If you have asteatotic eczema, do your best to avoid cold air, hot air, and dry air directly on your ears. Avoidance can be difficult if you live or work in a place that often has comfort systems running, which can promote dryness. Covering your ears whenever you go outside in the winter, so they don’t get too cold, can help prevent symptoms from worsening. Using generous amounts of thick moisturizers can also help treat the condition.

One MyEczemaTeam member has found that cool — but not cold — water helps with ear eczema. As they explained, “Cool water helps, and Benadryl at night.”

Use Petroleum Jelly Overnight

Many doctors and dermatologists recommend petroleum jelly for people with eczema. Petroleum jelly generally does not irritate the skin, and it can act as a moisturizer for painful, itchy, dry skin. Petroleum jelly can be messy, so you may want to apply it to affected areas only at night. To help protect your sheets, you can put your hair up and wrap your ears in gauze after application, letting the petroleum jelly soak into your skin. The petroleum jelly is thick and greasy, and it acts as a good barrier for your skin to retain moisture and protect it from the environment.

Talk To Your Doctor

There are many different types of treatments your doctor may recommend for eczema. Topical corticosteroids — along with liberal amounts of moisturizer — can help reduce itching and allow the skin to heal by reducing skin inflammation. If the itch is deeper into the ear, steroid liquid drops can reduce the inflammation.

People whose eczema is severe or extends beyond their ears may consider talking to their doctor about systemic drugs to help suppress overactive immune-system activity. Systemic drugs include immunosuppressants — such as cyclosporine, mycophenolate mofetil (sold under the brand names CellCept and Myfortic), and methotrexate — as well as the biologic drug Dupixent (dupilumab). For cases where eczema has led to a skin infection — such as when scratching has led to injury — your doctor may prescribe oral or topical antibiotics.

MyEczemaTeam members have had success working with dermatologists to resolve their ear eczema. As one shared, “I have an outbreak in and around my ears. This comes and goes frequently. I manage it with topical meds.”

Without a dermatologist’s help, it can be hard to know which medications or treatments to try and how often to use them. Following your doctor’s medical advice and taking your prescriptions as prescribed should help manage your eczema symptoms — or even help prevent them from spreading to your ears.

Meet Your Team

MyEczemaTeam is the social network for people with eczema and their loved ones. Here, more than 36,000 members from around the world come together to ask questions, offer support and advice, and connect with others who understand life with eczema.

Have you developed eczema on your ears? How have you managed it? Share your experience and tips in the comments below or by posting on MyEczemaTeam.

All updates must be accompanied by text or a picture.
Kevin Berman, M.D., Ph.D. is a dermatologist at the Atlanta Center for Dermatologic Disease, Atlanta, GA. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Learn more about him here.
Sarah Winfrey is a writer at MyHealthTeam. Learn more about her here.

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