Otitis Externa

What is otitis externa?

Otitis externa is an infection of the outer ear canal, and is more commonly known as swimmer's ear. Water that remains in the ear after swimming can make it easier for bacteria or fungus to grow. The symptoms may range from itching to pain and swelling of the ear canal. Treatment involves pain relief and ear drops to treat the ear infection. It is also helpful to keep the ear dry. Most people recover well with no complications, though people with diabetes or a weakened immune system are at risk of developing a severe infection.

Risks

Outer ear infections are often caused by bacteria or fungi in the outer ear canal. This canal runs between the ear drum and the visible ear. It commonly occurs when the ear canal is wet, causing a moist, warm environment for bacteria and fungi to grow. People who do water sports or who go swimming regularly may be more likely to develop this condition. Putting in foreign objects (including cotton ear swabs) might cause damage to the skin of the ear canal, and make it easier for bacteria and fungi to grow.

Symptoms

Typical symptoms of an outer ear infection include itching in the ear, pain in the ear, difficulty hearing and a discharge from the ear. Sometimes the whole outer ear may become red and swollen. In severe cases, people may develop headaches and fever.

Diagnosis

The diagnosis is made by a physician based on the symptoms and physical examination. This often involves using a small torch (an otoscope) to examine the ear canal and ear drum. It may be necessary to test the discharge from the ear for the specific cause of the infection.

Treatment

Treatment may involve gentle cleaning of the ear, pain relief and antibiotic therapy. Pain-relieving medications such as ibuprofen or paracetamol are useful to help with pain. A doctor may prescribe antibiotics or anti-fungal medications to treat the infect, and these are most commonly an ointment or drops which are put into the ear. Rarely, oral antibiotics might be needed. Swimming, flying and the use of earplugs should be avoided in order to avoid further irritation of the air canal.

Prevention

Prevention measures include keeping one's ear dry when swimming, by using soft ear plugs or by keeping the head out of the water, and not inserting things into the ear canal.

Other names for otitis externa

  • External otitis
  • Swimmer's ear