Otitis externa is an infection, inflammation, or irritation of the ear canal, the tube leading from the outer ear to the eardrum. Because it is often found in swimmers, particularly in warm, humid climates, it is often referred to as
swimmer’s ear. This condition can easily be treated but can become serious, even life-threatening in some people, if left untreated. This can be very serious particularly in
, where the infection can spread to the middle and inner ears, and cause an infection in the bone (
), described as malignant otitis externa. Contact your doctor if you think you may have otitis externa.
The Ear Canal
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Otitis externa can develop under the following circumstances:
Following frequent swimming or bathing when the ears are repeatedly filled with water and not drained completely afterwardAfter removal of protective ear wax, especially if the cleaning is painful and causes bleedingExcessive use of cotton swabs to clean earsInjury to the skin in the ear canal
As a consequence of skin conditions that also can occur in the ear canal, such as:
A risk factor is something that increases your chance of getting a disease or condition.
The following factors increase your chance of developing otitis externa:
Frequent swimming or showering, particularly in young children who have narrow ear canalsInsertion of any object into the ear canal causing damage to the liningSkin conditions causing breaks in the skin of the ear canalDiabetesMedical conditions resulting in a compromised immune system
People with weak immune systems or who have a chronic illness, such as diabetes or
, may suffer an aggressive form called malignant otitis externa. This life-threatening condition requires immediate treatment, hospitalization, intravenous antibiotics, and surgery (if needed). Malignant otitis externa results in infection of the cartilage and bone around the ear, as well as between the ear and the brain (the skull base). The condition can be severe and difficult to treat, causing nerve
If you experience any of these symptoms do not assume it is due to otitis externa. These symptoms may be caused by other health conditions. If you experience any one of them, see your physician.
Redness and/or itching inside the ear canalPain in the ear, sometimes severe, that may worsen when chewing or talking, and with pulling on the earHearing loss or a plugged-up or pressure sensation of the earDrainage from the ear
Your doctor will ask about your symptoms and medical history, and perform a visual exam of the ear, including the ear canal and inner ear, using a lighted device called an otoscope. If malignant otitis externa is suspected a
may be necessary.
Treatment options include the following:
Your doctor will remove any drainage or pus from the ear canal using a suction.
Prescription ear drops containing infection-fighting medications and inflammation reducers, like antibiotics and corticosteroids, are the usual treatment for otitis externa. Sometimes, antibiotic or antifungal pills are prescribed. With treatment, symptoms of otitis externa usually decrease in severity within 24 hours to three days. If the ear canal is very swollen, it may not allow the ear drops to get in. A small sponge, called a wick, may be inserted in the ear canal to absorb the drops. It is usually removed after 24-48 hours.
Your doctor may also recommend:
Keep the ear dry for 7 to 10 days.Take baths instead of showers.Avoid swimming.Do not rub or scratch the ear or inside the ear canal.
If you are diagnosed with otitis externa, follow your doctor's
To help reduce your chances of getting otitis externa, or from having the condition recur, take the following steps:
Avoid swimming in unclean water.Thoroughly drain and dry the ear and ear canal after swimming or showering.When showering, gently place a cotton ball lightly coated with petroleum jelly into the outer ear to prevent water collection.Do not insert anything into the ear canal, including your finger or cotton swabs.Do not remove ear wax. If you are having problems hearing, see a doctor first.Avoid using ear plugs since they can irritate the lining of the ear canal and can trap water inside the ear.Consider using a tight-fitting swimming cap.Use a white vinegar/rubbing alcohol eardrop solution following swimming. This will help restore the natural healthy environment inside the ear canal.
Block SL. Otitis externa: providing relief while avoiding complications.
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National Center for Emergency Medicine Informatics.
Otitis externa (swimmer's ear). National Center for Emergency Medicine Informatics website. Available at:
Accessed November 10, 2010.
Rutka J. Acute otitis externa: treatment perspectives.
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Last reviewed September 2012 by Kari Kassir, MD
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.
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