An ear lump is an abnormal growth or inflammation that can occur anywhere in or around the ear. These lumps are also referred to as bumps, tumors, nodules, and cysts. The lumps usually appear inside the ear canal, behind the ear, and on the ear lobe. The lump behind your ear could be a result of an infection, inflammation, or trauma. Depending on the cause, your ear lump can vary in size, shape, and color.
For example, your ear lumps can be:
- Large or small
- Single or multiple
- Soft or firm
- Painful or painless
- Tender or non-tender
- Sudden or gradual (It may appear suddenly or grow in size)
- Mobile (move when you touch it)
- Fixed (stays in one location after you press it).
If you’ve noticed a lump behind your ear, don’t panic. Most of the time, a lump behind your ear is nothing to worry about. However, in some rare cases, ear lumps can be signs of a serious medical condition. This article discusses common causes of bumps or lumps behind the ear with treatment.
13 Common Causes of bumps or lumps behind the ear
Inflammation is a sign your body is reacting to an injury or infection. When you notice a lump behind your ear, it can be an inflammation caused by an immune response to a bacteria, fungus, or virus. Inflammation can appear anywhere on the skin, including the area behind your ear.
When your body is fighting an infection, your immune system responds by sending white blood cells to fight the invading pathogens. This immune reaction can lead to fluid build-up in the affected area, which can cause a specific area to swell. Many bacterial and viral infections can cause swelling behind the ear.
Types of infections include:
Bacteria skin infections: When bacteria infect a hair follicle, it could lead to a condition known as folliculitis. If folliculitis is left untreated, it can cause swelling at the back of the ear.
Bacteria can also infect open wounds around your ear and lead to cellulitis – This bacterial infection affects the exposed skin and the area under the skin. When the skin infection isn’t properly treated, the infection can develop into a skin abscess (pocket of pus) behind the ear.
Viral skin infections: Viral infections like Mononucleosis (Epstein-Barr virus) can also cause bumps behind the ear in the form of skin-colored warts.
Other bacterial and viral infections that can cause ear lumps to include:
- HIV and AIDS
- Strep throat
Fungal skin infections: Fungal infections are responsible for many skin conditions. These fungal infections usually cause a reddish, itchy, and scaly rash that may be accompanied by swelling. For example, ringworm and otomycosis are fungal infections that can cause bumps behind the ear.
Lymph node infection: Lymph nodes are small glands house the cells that fight off infections. Although there are lymph nodes all around your body, common sites include the neck (behind the ear), throat, armpits, and groin.
When your body is fighting off an infection located around a lymph node, it can cause the lymph node to swell. If your body is fighting a bacterial infection in your throat, it can lead to bumps at the back of your ear. The size of lymph nodes may differ, and they either appear as single or multiple bumps behind the ear.
Systemic diseases are illnesses that affect the whole body, including the area behind your ears. Some of these diseases can cause lumps behind the ears. Systemic diseases that cause ear lumps include:
- Rheumatoid Arthritis
- Myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome
Skin growths can appear anywhere on the skin, including the back of the ear. Abnormal skin growths may be non-cancerous or cancerous. If the growth is controlled and does not spread from one spot to another, it is non-cancerous.
If the ear lump behind your ear moves from one area to another, it may be a cancerous growth.
Trauma or injury
If you have an injury to the head, you may notice swelling behind the ear. The ear bump caused by trauma or injury is a result of blood build-up under the skin. Minor and severe head injuries such as stings, bites can cause ear lumps.
Mastoiditis is a severe ear infection that affects the mastoid bone, which is located behind the ear. Most of the time, mastoiditis occurs when people fail to treat a previous ear infection.
This infection can cause pus-filled cysts to form as knots or lumps behind your ear. Although the condition is rare, mastoiditis can be life-threatening if it is left untreated.
When a particular area in your body becomes infected, it could cause the development of an abscess. Your body reacts to the infection by sending white blood cells to kill off the invading bacteria or virus.
When these white blood cells accumulate in the infected area, pus begins to develop. A collection of the pus in the infected area is an abscess. Abscesses could happen anywhere in the body, including the back of the ear.
Symptoms of abscesses include:
Acne is a common skin condition that affects teenagers and young adults. It occurs when your hair follicles become clogged with dead skin cells, bacteria, and oil, which in turn causes pimples and bumps.
Although acne can appear anywhere on the skin, common acne sites include the face, forehead, neck, upper, and chest. When you have acne on your neck, it could cause bumps to grow at the back of your ear.
Lipomas are round, fat lumps of tissue that develop between the skin and the underlying muscle layer. A lipoma can grow anywhere on your skin, and it’s usually non-life-threatening.
Since lipomas are benign, you may not quickly notice them on the skin’s surface. However, as the lipoma increase in size, you may be able to feel it with your hand. Lipomas move when touched, and in rare cases, they can be cancerous.
Swimmer’s ear (Otitis Externa)
Swimmer’s ear is an infection that occurs when bacteria, fungi or virus invades the ear canal. Your ear canal runs from the eardrum to the opening of the ear.
Just like its name suggests, you can get a swimmer’s ear if the water stays inside your ear canal after swimming. The swimming water that stays back in your ear canal creates an optimum environment for bacteria and fungus to grow and cause an infection.
You can also get a swimmer’s ear from cotton swabs or any other material used for cleaning your ears. Although any individual can have a swimmer’s ear, the condition is more common in children because they have narrow ear canals that don’t drain properly.
Other symptoms of Otitis externa include:
- Discomfort inside the ear canal
- Drainage of clear fluid
If you notice symptoms of a swimmer’s ear, seek medical attention immediately. If the symptoms are left untreated, they could spread and lead to other complications, including permanent loss of hearing, fever, and swelling.
Dermatitis is a common skin condition that appears when dead skin cells build up in the skin. This condition is usually characterized by inflammation and redness.
Follicular eczema is a type of dermatitis that develops bumps in hair follicles.
Cellulitis is a bacterial infection that affects the underlying layers of the skin. Although it can appear anywhere on the body, it is more common on the lower legs, feet, and face.
The condition can arise if Staphylococcus bacteria enter your skin through a cut or if you have a pre-existing skin infection like impetigo or eczema.
Symptoms of cellulitis include sore, pain, and reddened skin. If cellulitis is left untreated, the infection can develop into pus. In rare cases, the infection can cause blood poisoning or meningitis.
Other symptoms of cellulitis include:
- Severe pain
- Cold sweats
- Fast heartbeat
Swelling caused by cancer
In some rare cases, the lump behind your ear may result from certain types of cancer. Lumps caused by cancer are usually irregularly shaped, hard, and firmly rooted under the skin.
Potential complications of an ear lump
Typically, ear lumps aren’t life-threatening. However, if the lumps are left treated, the behind your ear could become a cause for concern. For example, ear lumps caused by cancer can spread throughout the body.
Other complications of an ear lump include:
- Hearing loss
- Ear infection
- Spread of infection
- Spread of cancer
Should I self-check my ear lump?
You can check if you have any ear lumps. Gently using your fingers around your ear is an effective way to discover any lumps behind your ear.
For instance, if you feel a soft lump, it could be a lipoma or something benign. If it is hard, immobile, and grows quickly, it may be signs of cancer.
If you have an infection, the ear lump may be tender or painful. You may also need to look for additional symptoms like fever or chills.
I recommend you see a physician if you feel any bump behind your ear, especially if you notice any worrisome characteristics. If the lump behind your ear is a symptom of a severe condition, then detecting it early can be crucial.
You need to visit a doctor immediately if the lump behind your ear is:
- The lump is painful, red, tender, or releases a discharge.
- Grows or changes rapidly.
- Fixed firmly in place or feels attached.
- It appears suddenly.
- It accompanies more general symptoms.
Treatment for lumps behind the ear
Abscess: To treat an abscess, you may have to drain it to remove the pus. In some complicated cases, you may require surgery to remove the abscess. Your doctor may also recommend some antibiotics to help you combat the infection.
Sebaceous cysts: When your oil glands produce excess oil, it could block your skin follicles and create cysts. Luckily most sebaceous cysts do not require treatment and will clear up on their own. However, you can use a warm compress to reduce the swelling.
Acne: There are various topical creams and serums that help to reduce inflammation caused by acne. Before you buy any product, I recommend you speak with a dermatologist.
Dermatitis: Your doctor will prescribe lotions or creams to relieve the itching and discomfort. If the yeast is responsible for your infection, you may need antifungal agents.
Top tip: Taking a bath with Epsom salts or baking soda can help relieve the symptoms.
Swollen lymph nodes: Swollen lymph nodes are your body’s way of fighting an infection. To treat your swollen lymph nodes, your doctor will determine the underlying cause of infection and treat it. Treatment is usually with antibiotics, but sometimes, a biopsy may be needed.
Mastoiditis: Mastoiditis can be treated with antibiotics. You may require a small surgery to drain the middle ear or remove some of the bony mastoids.
Otitis media: Swimmer’s ear usually clears up on its own within 2 days. However, if your otitis media persists, your doctor will use an ear tube to drain fluid from the middle ear.
When to See Your Doctor?
If your ear lumps accompany the symptoms below, you should see your doctor immediately.
- Pain or tenderness
- Ear discharge
- Ear pain
It could signal something more life-threatening, and you should seek medical attention immediately. Fortunately, lumps behind the ears are usually harmless. In fact, most ear lumps are a symptom of an infection or a small skin condition like acne.
Besides, ear lumps aren’t particularly painful or uncomfortable. If the swelling happens gradually and isn’t itchy or painful, it will resolve on its own without any need for treatment. However, if your ear lumps are accompanied by pain, fever, or unexplained weight loss, you need to see your doctor.
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- Cancer of the outer ear. (2014, July 31)
- Evidence search: Lump behind the ear. (n.d.)
- Head and neck cancer. (n.d.)
- Lymphadenopathy in children. (n.d.)
- Lymphadenopathy of the head and neck. (n.d.)
- Miyamoto, R. T. (2015, December). Mastoiditis
- Zito, P. M. &Scharf, R. (2018, May 2).Cyst, Epidermoid (Sebaceous Cyst).StatPearls.