If you've ever felt your ears burning, it's probably not because somebody's talking about you, as the old saying goes. Rather, burning ears are often a sign of something going on in your body or the result of environmental conditions. It's usually nothing to worry about, but occasionally you may need medical treatment.
Here are a few common reasons why ears might burn and turn red, and what you can do about them.
Otitis media, caused by fluid accumulation in the middle ear, isn't just painful on the inside but can also cause burning and redness to the outer ear. (Photo: BruceBlaus/Wikimedia Commons)
Ear infections. When bacteria and viruses invade your ears, not only are internal areas affected but symptoms may also show up on the outer ear (called the auricle or pinna). One type is a middle ear infection (otitis media with effusion) which occurs when the Eustachian tube, located behind the eardrum, becomes inflamed and swollen, trapping fluid. There's also otitis externa (commonly known as swimmer's ear), caused by water getting into the outer ear canal. Even after water drains out, small amounts of moisture lingering in the warm environment may become a breeding ground for bacteria and make ears burn inside and out. Most ear infections either go away on their own or require a round of antibiotics.
Injury. Physical trauma to the outer ear can result in burning, swelling and redness. This includes everything from scratches and cuts to bug bites and ear piercings. Even wounds from inserting sharp objects like a pencil or fingernail into the ear canal can spread to your outer ears. See a doctor if there is excessive bleeding or injuries don't heal. Protect your ears during high-intensity activities by donning a helmet.
Sunburn. You're probably diligent about slathering sunblock on every inch of bare skin before going out in the sun, but it's easy to overlook the skin on your ears. If you notice a burning sensation on your outer ears after extended UV ray exposure, you may have a good, old-fashioned sunburn. Treat pain, swelling and peeling with ice packs, aloe vera gel and pain relievers. And next time it's sunny, don't forget to apply sunscreen to your ears or wear a wide-brimmed hat.
Skin conditions/allergies. Inflammatory skin conditions like eczema and psoriasis may also manifest on your outer ears (as well as inside the ear canal). So can allergic reactions like urticaria (hives) and bacterial skin infections like cellulitis. Treatments vary depending on the type of skin condition, so it's important to see a doctor.
Changes in temperature. Ears also can flush from exposure to either hot or cold air. With rising heat, the body experiences vasodilation (described above). Skin reddens, including on the ears. The opposite happens with cold temperatures when the body undergoes vasoconstriction of the skin's blood supply to keep it from losing heat. However, peripheral areas and extremities like cheeks, fingers and ears often start experiencing cold-induced vasodilation shortly after cold exposure to warm them up and prevent frostbite. In other words, they get warm and red.
Emotion. If you blush or flush easily, your ears may be affected, too. This kind of sudden reddening and warming of the skin is triggered by embarrassment, anger or other intense emotions, which cause blood vessels in the face and neck to dilate and blood to rush in (called vasodilation). Ears are particularly susceptible to turning red because the skin covering the auricle is thin. Fortunately, redness usually subsides as soon as your emotions do.
Hormonal changes. Burning ears are sometimes a side effect of conditions that impact your hormones. This includes hormone shifts during menopause, as well as hormonal imbalances related to thyroid and adrenal gland problems. See your doctor for an appropriate treatment.
Red ear syndrome can be painful with episodes lasting from a few seconds to several hours. (Photo: Giorgio Lambru, Sarah Miller and Manjit S Matharu/Wikimedia Commons)
Red ear syndrome. This rare condition causes one or both earlobes to turn red and burn. It's not fully understood, but red ear syndrome occurs most often in people who suffer from migraines, cluster headaches, jaw pain and upper spine problems. What's the link? It may be related to the fact that several ear nerves, including in the earlobes, are connected to the cervical spine, brainstem and trigeminal nerve that extends to the front of the brain, face and jaw. All these areas play a role in migraines and other types of facial pain. Treatment for red ear syndrome remains elusive, though drugs that treat migraines are often effective.