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What Causes Lumps Behind the Ears?

Understanding lumps behind the ears

Key points

  1. Lumps or nodules behind the ears are generally harmless.
  2. Several conditions may lead to knots, lumps, bumps, or nodules behind your ears.
  3. If the lump is causing you pain or discomfort, make an appointment with your doctor.

In most cases, lumps or nodules behind the ears are harmless. They may signal a need for medication, as in the case of an infection, but rarely are they a sign of a dangerous or life-threatening problem.

Learn the possible causes for lumps behind your ears.

What causes lumps behind the ears?

Several conditions may lead to knots, lumps, bumps, or nodules behind your ears. In order of likelihood, these conditions include:


Many bacterial and viral infections can cause swelling in and around your neck and face. Two such infections are strep throat and infectious mononucleosis (Epstein-Barr virus). Other conditions, such as HIV/AIDS, measles, and chickenpox can also cause swelling in and around the neck and face.


If you develop an ear infection and don’t get treatment, you may develop a more serious infection of the ear called mastoiditis. This infection develops in the bony protrusion behind the ear, which is called the mastoid. It may cause pus-filled cysts to develop. In turn, you may feel those as lumps or knots behind your ear.


An abscess develops when tissue or cells in an area of the body become infected. Your body responds to the infection by trying to kill off the invading bacteria or virus. To fight the bacteria, your body sends white blood cells to the infected areas. These white blood cells begin accumulating in the damaged location. As a result, pus begins to develop. Pus is a thick, fluid-like product that develops from dead white bloods cells, tissue, bacteria, and other invading substances. Abscesses are often painful and warm to the touch.

Otitis media

Otis media is another term for an ear infection. Ear infections can be bacterial or viral. When an infection occurs, it can cause painful fluid buildup and swelling. These symptoms may result in visible swelling behind the ear. Antibiotics may be used to ease the symptoms and end the infection.

Lymphadenopathy (secondary to ear or throat infections)

Lymphadenopathy begins in your lymph nodes. Lymph nodes are tiny, organ-like structures that are present throughout your body. This includes under your arms, in your neck, in your pelvis, and behind the ears. From time to time, your lymph nodes will swell. In many cases, the swelling is the result of an infection. As the number of infection-fighting cells grows, they will begin to build up in the lymph nodes. As a result, the lymph nodes will begin to swell. Swollen lymph nodes are commonly due to infection, inflammation, or cancer.

Sebaceous cysts

Sebaceous cysts are noncancerous bumps that arise beneath the skin. They most commonly develop on the head, neck, and torso. This type of cyst develops around the sebaceous gland, which is responsible for producing oil that lubricates your skin and hair. Most sebaceous cysts cause little to no pain. They may, however, be uncomfortable or irritating because of where they develop on your body.

Acne vulgaris

Acne is a common skin condition that occurs when hair follicles in the skin become clogged. Dead skin cells and oil can clog the follicles. As a result, pimples and bumps may develop. In some cases, these bumps will grow to be large, solid bumps that can be painful.


A lipoma is a fatty lump that develops between the layers of your skin. A lipoma can develop anywhere on your body, and it’s almost always completely harmless. Lipomas are not always detectable from the skin’s surface, but the larger they grow, the more likely it is that you will be able to feel them with your hand.

How can you identify lumps behind the ears?

If you have a history of acne, it may be easy for you to diagnose a lump or bump behind your ear as a pimple. But for other people, figuring out what is causing the raised area may be trickier.

How to self-check

Your hand is your best tool for detecting lumps or bumps behind your ears. Does the lump feel soft and pliable? It’s probably a lipoma. Is the spot tender and painful, especially when touched? It could be a pimple or an abscess. In addition to the bump, are you experiencing other symptoms, such as fever or chills? In that case, the lump could be another sign of an infection.

Check out: 6 effective earache remedies »

What to see a doctor

If the lump is problematic, causing you pain or discomfort, or associated with other symptoms, make an appointment with your doctor. A quick physical inspection of the area and a general checkup can usually tell your doctor exactly what is happening behind your ear.

Based on what your doctor finds, they may suggest leaving the lump to resolve on its own, or they may suggest any number of treatments, from medicine to surgery.

Rest assured, however, that lumps behind the ear are usually not harmful. Together with your doctor, you can find the best way to eliminate the lump and possibly prevent future problems.

Keep reading: Tips for cleaning your ears safely »

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