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There’s no ‘x’ in espresso and the same is true for ear eczema. If your Google history says otherwise, no one needs to know. (FYI: it’s pronounced eg-zuh-MUH.)
Ear eczema shows up as dry, flaky, red, or itchy skin on, around, or inside your ear. Before you’re forced to change your profile pic to the “hear no evil monkey,” read on.
Eczema, aka atopic dermatitis, can appear nearly anywhere on the body. People with atopic dermatitis are more sensitive to products on their skin and can manifest eczema in many places, even on the ears.
Contact dermatitis looks just like like atopic dermatitis, but this is technically due to an external cause such as an irritant or an allergic substance (i.e. earrings).
Ear eczema is sometimes used interchangeably to refer to an eczema-like rash on the ears, even if it’s not always true atopic dermatitis (eczema) on the ears. In this article, we use it in a general sense and not specifically to refer to only atopic dermatitis.
Thankfully, this eczema on the ears isn’t contagious, and there are treatments to reduce the risk of infection or inflammation.
The symptoms of ear eczema can affect the outside of the ear, inside the ear canal, the area behind the ear, and the crease where your ears are attached.
Mild to moderate symptoms include:
- dry, scaly skin
- redness and itching
Dry weather and hot, sweaty environments are known to worsen eczema in some individuals.
More serious symptoms include:
- swollen, cracked, and sensitive skin
- oozing, bleeding, or crusting of cracked skin
Doctors and researchers haven’t determined the exact cause of eczema yet.
One possible factor may be filaggrin, a gene mutation that creates a protective barrier on the skin — increasing skin vulnerability. This is thought to be an underlying genetic cause of atopic dermatitis.
Atopic dermatitis is essentially due to a dysfunctional immune system. People with this disorder may be more apt to react to irritants or allergic substances on the skin including:
- soaps, detergents, disinfectants, baby wipes, and scented products
- certain metals like nickel
- rough fabrics like wool
The cause of ear eczema depends on which type you’re dealing with. There are four major causes of an itchy eczema-like rash on the ears.
Allergic contact dermatitis
Allergic contact dermatitis occurs when your ear comes into contact with an allergen such as:
- nickel (found in some jewelry)
- antibiotic creams, such as Neosporin
It can take 12–72 hours following exposure for the allergy to appear.
The main symptoms of allergic contact dermatitis include:
- blisters that ooze
- red skin
- itching and scaling
Irritant contact dermatitis
Irritant contact dermatitis occurs when your ear comes into direct contact with an irritant such as:
- harsh chemicals including soaps
- cleaning products
The main symptoms of an irritant contact dermatitis are almost identical to allergic contact dermatitis, except patients may be more likely to report a burning pain in the area.
- tight feeling skin
- mild swelling
- dry, cracking skin
“Help me Princess Leia buns, you’re my only hope.” We know that YouTube tutorial search all too well! Winter must be coming, putting uncovered ears at risk.
Seborrheic eczema, also known as seborrheic dermatitis, occurs on the oilier parts of the body, like your scalp and the skin behind your ears. Doctors aren’t 100 percent sure what causes it, but it seems to be related to a yeast overgrowth.
It’s more common in men and can be more severe in people with:
- oily hair and skin
- Parkinson’s disease
Signs of seborrheic eczema include:
- dry, flaky skin
- greasy, yellow scales
- itchy skin
Doctors can usually figure out the cause of your ear eczema/dermatitis from physical exam and history. They’ll do a visual assessment, shine a light inside your ears, and ask about your symptoms and family history.
A doctor may want to do a biopsy to rule out similar conditions, like psoriasis. For a biopsy, the doctor removes a portion of the affected skin and sends it to the pathology lab to be reviewed under a microscope.
Be prepared to answer questions about your medical history and provide as much information as possible about ingredients and beauty products you use.
Treatment very much depends on the cause.
Your doctor may suggest allergy testing if allergic contact dermatitis is suspected. Treatment requires avoiding certain ingredients or materials.
If you have seborrheic eczema your doctor may recommend an antifungal cream or shampoo. To reduce inflammation, your doctor may prescribe a topical steroid.
Staying moisturized is essential for all types of ear eczema. Harsh soaps and cleansers should be avoided, as they’re too drying.
Additional treatments, depending on the cause of your ear dermatitis/eczema and the extent of involvement on the body, include:
- colloidal oatmeal lotion
- prescription antifungal creams, steroids, or barrier creams
- systemic medications to reduce the immune system’s trigger response
- phototherapy, where UVB light is used on affected areas
Cracked and bleeding skin from dryness or itching increases your risk for infection. If ear eczema becomes infected, wax, hair, and skin may build up in your ear canal leading to ear infections and impaired hearing.
Contact your doctor right away if you notice:
- aching ear pain
- yellow or green discharge
- unusual or severe redness
- flu-like symptoms
Infected eczema will require antibiotics and topical steroids for treatment.
If it’s your first time experiencing this condition, or if symptoms are severe, it’s best to see your healthcare provider to get an accurate diagnosis since a professional opinion and/or further testing may be required to narrow the cause.
The good news is that ear eczema is usually easy enough to treat with lifestyle changes and home remedies. It should clear up without any long-term effects. You can still rock the Leia buns, obvs.