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 they rarely are a sign of a dangerous or life-threatening problem.
Several conditions may lead to knots, lumps, bumps, or nodules behind your ears. In order of likelihood, they are:
- Otitis media
- Lymphadenopathy (secondary to ear or throat infections)
- Sebaceous cysts
- Acne vulgaris
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 can also cause swelling in and around the neck and face. They include:
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 and 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.
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 to end the infection.
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 your 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. Swollen lymph nodes are commonly caused by infection, inflammation, or cancer.
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 be uncomfortable or irritating because of where they develop on your body.
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 and then pimples and bumps may develop. In certain cases, these bumps will grow to be large, solid, and sometimes 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 as they grow larger, it’s more likely that you’ll be able to feel them with your hand.
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’s 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. Below are a few questions you can ask yourself:
- Does the lump feel soft and pliable? If so, it’s probably a lipoma.
- Is the spot tender and painful, especially when touched? Then 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.
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 help your doctor figure out exactly what is happening behind your ear.
Based on what your doctor finds, he or she may suggest leaving the lump to resolve on its own, or your doctor may suggest any number of treatments, from medicine to surgery.
Lumps behind the ear usually aren’t harmful. Together with your doctor, you can find the best way to eliminate the lump and prevent future problems.