What causes a smell behind the ear?

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By Zawn Villines   

Reviewed by Karen Gill, MD

Seborrheic dermatitis | Poor
hygiene | Infected ear piercings | Yeast infection | Infected injuries | Prevention | Takeaway

Most people do not give the
area behind their ears much attention. However, some people may notice a smell
that originates there. Sometimes, poor hygiene can cause the smell, but minor
infections are also a common cause.

Because people cannot see the
area behind their ears, they may not think to wash it or check for skin
irritation or signs of infection.
Many relatively minor issues
can cause a smell behind the ears. These include:

  • seborrheic dermatitis, a type
    of eczema
  • poor hygiene
  • piercing infections
  • yeast infections
  • cut or injury infections
In most cases, a smell behind
the ears is not a sign of a serious problem. Finding the right treatment and
paying a little more attention to the area can usually clear it up.
There are also many effective
methods of prevention, which we also discuss in this article.
Seborrheic dermatitis

Seborrheic dermatitis is a
type of eczema that can cause flaky, scaly skin.
It can affect any area of the
body, including the back of the ears. In some cases, fungi that live on the
skin cause seborrheic dermatitis.
The condition does not usually
cause a bad smell. However, the scaly, oily flakes it produces can trap sweat
and odor. Also, the condition can sometimes be painful, which may cause people
to avoid thoroughly washing behind their ears.
Using antifungal treatments
can usually clear symptoms. Many people with seborrheic dermatitis on the skin
also have this condition on the scalp, so it may be helpful to wash the scalp
with antifungal shampoo. Many antifungal shampoos are available to purchase
Poor hygiene

The area of skin directly
behind the ears can very easily trap sweat and oils. The back of the ear can
trap residue from skin and hair care products. Having long hair may also make
it easier to trap oil and other residues.
The area behind the ears is
also impossible to see without a mirror, so most people do not pay much
attention to it. They may not wash the area very much or pay close enough
attention when they do.
So, if the area does not hurt
and just smells bad, the most simple solution is to thoroughly wash with warm
water and soap.
Infected ear piercings

An ear piercing is an open
wound until it fully heals.
For this reason, it is easy
for bacteria to enter the wound. Bacteria can also infect healed ear piercings,
especially if the piercing is unclean.
Infected ear piercings
sometimes smell bad. Pus, dead skin, and other drainage from the infection can
stick to earring posts and backs. This can cause a bad smell to linger.
Cleaning the ears and earring
posts with either rubbing alcohol or a special ear piercing solution might
help. Ear piercing solution is available to purchase online.
If the infection is painful,
if there is a fever or swollen lymph nodes, or if home treatment does not work,
see a doctor. As with other infections, those of ear piercings can travel to
other areas of the body, potentially becoming very serious.
People should see a doctor if
the infection is in the cartilage of the ear. These infections can be more
difficult to treat and may require stronger antibiotics.
Yeast infection

Candidiasis, which people tend
to call a yeast infection, is an infection with the fungus Candida albicans.
Yeast tends to grow in warm
and moist areas. As a result, people who sweat a lot or those who do not
regularly clean the area behind their ears may develop a yeast infection.
Yeast infections tend to itch
and may produce a beer- or bread-like smell.
Rarely, a person may develop a
serious yeast infection that doctors call invasive candidiasis. This occurs
when yeast gets into the bloodstream and spreads through the body. When this
happens, a person may develop signs of a yeast infection in several areas of
the body.
People with weak immune
systems, such as those with HIV or AIDS, are more vulnerable to this infection.
Most yeast infections respond
well to over-the-counter antifungal remedies. If the infection is severe, if a
person with a weak immune system develops the yeast infection, or if home
remedies do not work, a doctor can prescribe a pill or cream to clear the
Sometimes, yeast or other
fungi infect the inside of the ear, usually in the outermost part. Doctors call
this otomycosis.
This infection may become
invasive, spreading deep into the ear or even into the bone. Otomycosis can
cause intense pain and itching in the ear. A doctor can prescribe medication to
treat it.
Infected injuries

Infected injuries sometimes
smell unpleasant. It is possible not to notice an injury behind the ear, such
as a cut, scrape, or pimple, until it becomes infected.
If there is swelling, pain, or
discharge, the infection probably requires antibiotics.
If the pain is minor, try
cleaning the injury with soap and water and applying a triple antibiotic
ointment. See a doctor if symptoms do not go away in 1–2 days.
If there is a fever or intense
pain, or if the injury is very flushed, seek immediate medical attention.

People with sensitive skin can
keep it clean by using gentle soaps.
Preventing a bad smell behind
the ear is typically as simple as keeping the area clean. Good hygiene may also
help prevent infections and skin irritation.
People can try the following
strategies to prevent developing a smell behind the ears:

  • Wash behind the ears during
    every bath or shower. People with sensitive skin or eczema should use sensitive
    skin soap, which is available online.
  • Wipe the area behind the ears
    with a warm, wet washcloth after intense physical activity.
  • Keep ear piercings clean.
    Twist and rotate the piercings in a circle several times each day. Do not take
    new posts out until at least 6 weeks after piercing. Children who are too young
    to clean their ears must receive adult help.
  • Gently exfoliate the area
    behind the ears once or twice per week. This prevents dead skin from building
    up. An exfoliating wash or rough washcloth can help with this task. People with
    skin conditions should discuss exfoliation with a doctor before trying it.
  • Do not ignore a bad smell,
    even if there is no pain. A bad smell may be a warning sign of an infection or
    other problem, so it is best to see a doctor.

Noticing a bad smell behind
the ears can be alarming. Finding the right treatment can help remove the smell
as well as resolve the underlying cause.
In many cases, treatment is a
simple matter of taking the time to wash this often neglected area. Even when
an infection or other serious issue is the cause, a doctor can usually
prescribe a quick-acting treatment.
Discussing unusual smells in
the body may feel uncomfortable, but people should not hesitate to seek help
from a healthcare professional. They can offer reassurance that the problem is
common and a quick path to relief.

Kayode Ojo
Kayode Emmanuel Ojo is the Co-Founder and Managing Director at SHEFFA Limited. He is presently studying Computer Science at the National Open University, Victoria Island, Lagos.