Swollen Ear Cartilage

The outer edges of the ears are made up of a substance called cartilage. It is the same substance the nose is formed from. If this cartilage becomes swollen or inflamed, it may cause a pinching sensation or sharp pain, often without any explanation as to why. The primary purpose of cartilage in the outer ear is to act as a sound receptor which funnels sound to the eardrum via the ear canal. However, the outer ear also consists of blood vessels, nerves and tissues which can all become affected due to swollen ear cartilage.

In most cases, an incidence of swollen ear cartilage will not be serious and may correct itself over the course of a few days or weeks. However, if a patient is concerned that the condition is getting worse over time or doesn’t seem to be subsiding, they should contact their local doctor or healthcare provider to verify that there aren’t any more serious issues present.

Symptoms of swollen ear cartilage:

When the ear cartilage becomes swollen, it means inflammation has occurred. Inflammation happens when the body’s immune cells react to what they perceive to be a foreign body or invader. When this occurs in the ear, it can cause it to appear red and larger than normal and may be accompanied by pain.

The following symptoms may vary in severity from case to case. Not all symptoms may be present at the same time:

  • Soreness
  • Pain
  • Tenderness around the affected area
  • Aching
  • Puffiness
  • Pus or discharge
  • A reddish or bluish tinge to the ear

Causes of swollen ear cartilage:

The causes of inflammation of the outer ear can vary, and if the patient is unsure of the direct cause they should consider making an appointment with their doctor. The following are some of the most common causes:

Polychondritis

This rare condition occurs across different areas of the body. Cartilage located in the ears, nose, and airways of the lungs becomes inflamed. This condition most commonly occurs in patients over the age of 50, and the causes of the condition are relatively unknown. To diagnose polychondritis, a doctor may need to perform a biopsy.

Cuts and grazes

If a patient experiences a cut or graze to the ear (in the workplace or during a contact sporting event, for example), the chances of bacterial infection are greatly increased – particularly if the cut is not cleaned and bandaged. Infection can then result in bacterial infection.

Trauma

A direct impact or blow to the external ear could cause significant damage to the cartilage, resulting in blood accumulating between the perichondrium and cartilage. This is sometimes known as “cauliflower ear” as the ear can resemble the vegetable in appearance. Those who partake in contact sports or martial arts are more susceptible to experiencing blunt trauma to the ear which results in swollen ear cartilage.

Complications from surgery

In the aftermath of surgeries such as pinnaplasty or otoplasty, which are used to reshape the ear, or after procedures used to remove a lesion or growth, the ear may become inflamed due to surgical trauma. This is perfectly normal post-surgery, and the ear should settle down given time.

Perichondritis

Perichondritis is an infection of the exterior ear. It doesn’t in itself cause swollen ear cartilage, but instead affects the perichondrium – this is the thin layer of tissue which covers the cartilage and provides it with nutrients.

Sunburn

Prolonged exposure to the sun can cause the cartilage to become damaged, resulting in swollen ear cartilage.

Swollen ear cartilage treatments:

The stage of the inflammation and/or the length of time an infection has progressed will usually dictate the steps required from the treatment of swollen ear cartilage. Some of the most common treatment methods include:

Anti-inflammatory medicines: Medications like Ibuprofen and Naproxen (non-steroidal anti-inflammatories) help to decrease swelling and reduce the pain of swollen ear cartilage.

Corticosteroids:

In severe cases, a doctor may prescribe a course of corticosteroids in addition to other anti-inflammatory drugs. In some cases, higher-level medications which target the immune system are required to help combat swollen ear cartilage.

Draining an abscess:

If an abscess has formed on the swollen ear cartilage, it could be necessary to drain it by making an incision on the ear. Once drained, the skin of the ear may require stitches to ensure the wound properly heals. This process can cause inflammation, although this will subside as the ear heals.

Antibiotics: If the inflammation of the swollen ear cartilage is caused by a bacterial infection, antibiotics may be useful in help fighting this off. Penicillin and flucloxacillin are commonly prescribed for ear infections, although other antibiotics may be prescribed depending on the infection type and the severity of the condition.

Cartilage removal:

After severe infection or severe blunt trauma, cartilage death may occur. This is when the tissue dies, and it’s usually necessary to remove dead tissue and cartilage to allow the ear to heal.

How to prevent swollen ear cartilage:

While not all cases of swollen ear cartilage can be prevented – for example, a patient may suffer an unavoidable trauma or develop a cartilage-related disease – there are several things patients can do to reduce the occurrence of non-serious cartilage inflammation, including the following:

Avoid placing objects in the ear – this includes fingers, sharp objects or even cotton balls. Patients who are suffering issues related to ear wax build-up are advised to seek professional removal instead of trying to remove it themselves.

Avoid placing pressure on the ear

Pressure can be placed on the ear by mobile phones, headbands or in-ear headphones. This pressure can damage the tissues and cartilage of the ear, resulting in inflammation.

Use protection

Wearing ear defenders during noisy tasks (such as mowing a lawn, operating heavy machinery at work or attending a concert) is advised to avoid damaging the ears.

Wear a correctly-fitted helmet

Those who own bicycles or motorcycles, and those who partake in sports which require the wearing of protective headgear should ensure that their helmet fits correctly around the ears. If a helmet is too tight, it may place additional pressure on the ears and any movement may cause scratches or irritation to occur.