Most often, red ears in children are explained by flushing, mechanical pressure or injury -- although this redness may also be related to infection or dermatitis. Rarely, red ears are caused by something serious. If one or both of your child's ears are red, a review of other signs and symptoms may help you determine if you need to seek an evaluation by her pediatrician.
Flushing, Pressure and Injury
Episodes of flushing increase blood flow to the skin, which can lead to redness in the upper trunk, neck, face -- or the ears. Flushing is often an exaggerated physical response which can be triggered by embarrassment, anger, or a result of overheating from exercise. Mechanical pressure can also lead to red ears, although the culprit -- such as the wearing of tight headsets or earmuffs -- tends to be obvious. Ear injury, insect bites and sunburn are also potential causes of red ears.
If the ears are exposed to allergens, such as lotions or nickel earrings, contact dermatitis can occur, causing itchy, red ears. This rash is treated by avoiding contact with the allergen. Another common cause of red ears is seborrheic dermatitis, a skin disease that causes a rash. In addition to redness, the affected skin is greasy, has white or yellow flakes, and may be swollen. This condition requires treatment, so if you suspect your child has this form of dermatitis, set up an appointment with her pediatrician or a dermatologist.
Cellulitis, a bacterial infection of the skin and tissues beneath the skin, can occur anywhere on the body, including the ears. This skin infection is accompanied by redness, pain and tenderness, and sometimes fever and chills. Otitis externa is an outer ear infection which is also called swimmer's ear, because it is commonly caused by trapped moisture in the ear canal. Typical symptoms include redness in the ear canal, along with itching and ear pain. Infrequently, injuries, bites or ear piercing can lead to perichondritis, an infection of the tissue that covers the outer ear cartilage, and this can lead to redness, pain and swelling. All of these infections require treatment, so a doctor's evaluation is necessary.
A few rare conditions can lead to redness of the external ear. One is relapsing polychondritis, a suspected autoimmune disorder which causes redness and inflammation of the cartilage in the ears, nose, or other areas of the body. Affected cartilage is red, painful and swollen. Red ear syndrome is also quite rare, and causes sporadic or daily episodes of redness and burning which may last for a few seconds to several hours. Both of these conditions tend to appear in adulthood, but have been reported in children.
The most common causes of red ears in children are not harmful or are easily treatable. Rarely, this redness signals a serious condition. Have your child's pediatrician evaluate her ears and other symptoms if you believe the redness is related to infection or dermatitis, or if your child has pain, fever or ear injury.
Reviewed by Kay Peck, MPH RD
- American Family Physician: Acute Otitis Externa: An Update
- Journal of Headache and Pain: The Red Ear Syndrome
- Merck Manual: Relapsing Polychondritis
- The Journal of Pediatrics: A Red Ear
- Cleveland Clinic: Center for Continuing Education: Flushing
- American Academy of Dermatology: Seborrheic Dermatitis
- Merck Manual: Cellulitis
- Merck Manual: Perichondritis