The delicate skin behind the ears is a common source for rashes. But they can be difficult to identify and treat because you can’t see the affected area well yourself.
There are many potential causes of a rash behind the ears, from skin irritation caused by haircare products to fungal infections.
Rashes behind the ears may cause itching, redness, swelling, and skin flaking that may range from irritating to painful. Here are some of the common causes of a rash behind the ears.
Eczema (atopic dermatitis)
Eczema is an itchy skin condition that can impact the area of skin behind the ears, as well as most areas of the ear itself. Symptoms of an eczema rash behind the ears include:
- cracked skin
Most people with ear eczema will notice the skin scaling where the ear lobe meets the skin.
Contact dermatitis occurs when you come in contact with something you’re allergic to or that irritates your skin. The ears are vulnerable to contact dermatitis because you may use skin care or hair care products that irritate the skin. Some perfumes, cosmetics, and earrings (especially those made from nickel) can also cause contact dermatitis.
Symptoms of contact dermatitis behind the ear include:
- dry skin
- red, irritated skin
- skin itching
If you’ve used a new skin care or hair care product and experienced skin irritation, those are likely the cause.
Fungal infections can affect skin folds, such as those behind the ears. Symptoms include:
- scaling of the skin
Ringworm is another type of fungal infection that can cause a red, circular sore on the skin. Sometimes, a person may have more than one rash-like ring behind the ear.
Also known as dandruff or cradle cap, seborrheic dermatitis is a condition that can cause white or yellow scales to form on the scalp. The backs of the ears may also be affected.
Other symptoms include itching, thick crusts on the skin, and sometimes clear to yellow drainage. The crusts may flake off.
Granuloma annulare is a skin condition that can cause red, raised skin patches. It sometimes causes similar symptoms to ringworm. You may have just one or multiple skin patches.
In addition to a red rash, you may also notice deep, rounded lumps in the skin of the affected area if you have granuloma annulare.
Lichen planus is an autoimmune disorder that can cause skin inflammation, including in and around the ears. Doctors call this otic lichen planus. The condition can even cause hearing loss in some people.
Other symptoms of lichen planus include ringing in the ears, bleeding, pain, and drainage from the ears.
Pityriasis rosea is a skin condition that causes a pink, scaly rash that may or may not itch.
Most people with the condition first have a viral-type illness, such as a runny nose, sore throat, and unexplained fatigue. The rash related to rosea can last several months. The condition most commonly affects people ages 10 to 35.
Also known as the German measles, rubella is a viral infection that causes a rash that may appear behind the neck and ears. The rash usually causes pink or red spots that may come together in patches. After starting on the face and head, the rash may spread downward.
Other symptoms of rubella include:
- appetite loss
- itching that lasts up to three days
- joint pain
- joint swelling
- runny nose
- swollen lymph nodes
The invention of the rubella vaccine, including the measles, mumps, rubella (MMR) vaccine, has made rubella a rarer condition. However, it’s still possible to contract the virus.
Lupus is an autoimmune disorder that can cause rashes or sores to develop on the skin. Not all people with lupus will have skin-related symptoms.
Lupus can cause a rash that appears on areas of skin the sun hits the most, such as the arms, ears, face, legs, and neck.
A lupus rash usually causes red, scaling skin that has rounded or ring-shaped lesions. Exposure to sunlight typically causes them to get worse.
Measles is a viral infection that can cause a rash that begins on the face and behind the ears before moving to the rest of the body. Measles can be a severe and sometimes deadly infection, especially in children. Although modern vaccines have helped to reduce measles rates in the United States, the condition still affects people worldwide.
Measles causes a skin rash that may appear as flat, red blotches that connect to each other. The condition is highly contagious and can cause symptoms like high fever, sore throat, cough, eye inflammation, and runny nose.
Babies and toddlers can also experience rashes behind the ears due to conditions adults don’t normally get.
One example is intertrigo behind the ears. This skin condition occurs in skin folds, sometimes when a baby’s drool goes behind the ears. The skin can become red, hot to the touch, and sometimes painful.
Parents can treat intertrigo by applying zinc creams or other moisture barriers to keep the wetness from damaging the skin.
Another condition that can cause a rash behind the ears is hand, foot, and mouth disease. This condition is common in children in childcare centers and preschools. In addition to a red, blistering rash, a child may have a fever, sore throat, and runny nose.
Seborrheic dermatitis (cradle cap) is another possible condition that affects babies.
Below are some examples of the common sources of rashes behind the ears.
Treatments for rashes behind the ears usually depend on the underlying cause. Keeping the skin clean, dry, and moisturized can often help to treat the rash.
A doctor may prescribe treatments if a rash behind the ears is due to a fungal or bacterial infection. These include oral or topical antifungal medications or antibiotics. This is especially true if the skin is bleeding and cracking or appears infected.
If the rash is due to allergic dermatitis, avoiding the substance that caused the rash can help to reduce the rash’s appearance. Here are some other home treatments that may help:
- Clean the affected area with soap and warm water. Always wash your hands before and after touching the rash.
- Apply a fragrance-free anti-itch ointment, or antibiotic skin cream, depending upon your symptoms. Loosely cover the affected area with a bandage, allowing the skin to breathe.
- Refrain from scratching the affected area.
- Apply cloth-covered compresses for swelling skin behind the ears.
A doctor can sometimes diagnose a skin rash by visually examining the affected area and taking a medical history.
If a doctor isn’t certain what may be causing the rash, they may take a swab or scraping of your skin (biopsy) and send it to a laboratory. A laboratory technician can then identify the bacteria, virus, or fungus that may be causing the rash.
See a doctor if your efforts to treat the rash at home aren’t improving its appearance. If the rash is bleeding or weeping (has yellow fluid coming from the rash area), call a doctor.
If you have signs that your rash may be infected, such as a fever, unexplained fatigue, or red and swollen skin, see a doctor.
A rash behind the ears may be a common occurrence, but it can have the potential to become infected. Always call a doctor if the rash appears to be getting worse and spreading to other areas of your skin.