Why Do My Ears Turn Red
“It’s been said that everyone has their breaking point – but it doesn’t have to be yours. If you’ve ever had one too many drinks at a party or been caught doing something embarrassing (like having a little too much to eat), then you’re probably familiar with this phenomenon. When we feel embarrassed by our actions, we blush — not just on the face, but all over. But why do we get red ears? It turns out there are two reasons. One reason is physiological, while another is psychological. The first type occurs when our bodies flush with heat. The second is due to embarrassment.
Here’s how it works physiologically: Our bodies contain millions of tiny tubes called capillaries. These capillaries allow oxygenated blood from the lungs and nutrients from food to go directly into cells. Cells use these nutrients to create energy for various functions including respiration (breathing) and circulation (blood flow). Oxygen molecules in the blood carry waste products away from the cells. Waste products include carbon dioxide and water. Carbon dioxide leaves the cells through diffusion across pores in cell membranes. Water leaves the cells through urine, sweat glands, tears, saliva and feces. In addition, some substances like hormones and neurotransmitters travel around the bloodstream.
Capillary walls contain proteins called endothelial cells which line the inside of the capillary lumen (the space between the inner wall of the capillary and its outer lining). Endothelial cells can open up small gaps between themselves, allowing fluid and even individual blood cells to pass through. This allows oxygen and nutrients to enter the tissues and wastes to leave them. Capillaries are very fragile and leaky. They need support. That’s where tight junctions come in. Tight junctions seal off the spaces between endothelial cells so that fluids cannot move across the barrier. Their job is to keep everything locked down tightly so they don’t get mixed up with other things going on outside the capillary.
The size of capillaries varies considerably. While capillaries in your brain are only about 3 microns wide, those in your fingertips range from 20 to 40 microns wide. Larger arteries branch off smaller ones until they reach individual tissue cells. Even though each capillary is narrow, they still hold a lot of liquid. For example, if you took the width of all the capillaries in your fingertip combined together, it would stretch from Earth to the sun!
So what happens when you have more liquid flowing through a single capillary than it was designed to handle? Pressure builds up behind the sealed-off endothelial cells. As pressure builds up, the endothelial cells become stretched and eventually tear. Once a hole forms, the liquid pressure escapes and the capillary dilates slightly.
When the capillary gets bigger, less surface area comes into contact with the same amount of blood. So, as the diameter of your ear increases, the volume of blood passing through decreases. During periods of high activity such as exercise, your heart beats faster and pumps more blood, bringing more oxygen and nutrients to your muscles. You may notice that your ears turn red during times of increased physical exertion. This is called vasodilation and it happens because your body needs more oxygen and fuel. Your blood vessels widen to let more blood and therefore more air and fuel through.
Another form of vasodilation takes place when you get angry, excited or scared. We call this sympathetic arousal. Sympathetic arousal causes your heart rate and breathing to increase. Blood is released to your muscles, thus increasing your strength and speed. You may notice that your ears turn red when you are upset.
This type of vasodilation isn’t bad; it is part of normal physiology. However, sometimes the process goes wrong. Certain diseases, environmental factors, medications and smoking can disrupt proper vascular function. One common disorder is known as Raynaud’s syndrome. People who suffer from Raynaud’s experience sudden episodes of numbness and coldness in their fingers. The symptoms usually last less than 15 minutes and can occur several times per hour. Sometimes they are accompanied by pain. Most often, however, the attacks are triggered by extreme cold temperatures or stress. Raynaud’s affects approximately 1 percent of people under age 45. Another condition called primary hyperhidrosis affects 4 million Americans, mostly women. People who suffer from this disease sweat excessively in places such as armpits, palms, feet and facial regions causing discomfort and social problems.
For most healthy individuals, red ears are simply caused by vasodilation. Some people may have difficulty distinguishing whether their reddening ears are actually caused by physical activity versus being embarrassed. Take a look next time you catch yourself blushing. Does your ear color change along with your cheeks? If you find that your ear color changes without any apparent external stimulus, it may be possible that your ears are turning red because of embarrassment.
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Eustachian tube dysfunction can also cause red ears. A person suffering from eustachian tube dysfunction will experience headaches, dizziness, nausea and vomiting. This problem occurs when the middle ear becomes filled with air rather than fluid. Since the middle ear contains no muscle tone, it fills with air instead of air and fluid. As air inflames the middle ear, the pressure within the tube rises. Increased pressure in the middle ear can cause the eardrum to flatten. When the eardrum flattens, it does not vibrate properly to transmit sound waves to the cochlea, which is located in the inner ear. Without sound signals, the brain thinks the eardrum is deaf and tries to equalize the pressure inside and outside of the ear drum. To relieve the pressure buildup in the middle ear, the brain sends fluid into the middle ear via the Eustachian tube. Unfortunately, this backfills the ear canal, making it difficult for sound waves to pass through.
To learn more about ears and related topics, follow the links on the next page.
People with allergies tend to develop red ears. Allergic reactions cause inflammation in the nasal passages, sinuses, eyes, throat and respiratory tract. Nasal congestion and irritation can lead to red ears. Symptoms associated with allergic reactions include runny nose, sneezing, wheezing, coughing and difficulty sleeping. ”