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 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 online.
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
Maintaining good hygiene with ear piercings can help prevent infection.
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.
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 infection.
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 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.