Otitis Externa

Otitis externa is an inflammation and/or infection of the ear canal. The ear canal is 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.

  • Causes

    Otitis externa is caused by infection, chemical irritation, or trauma. Trauma causes damage to the ear canal, which may cause inflammation or allow infection to invade.

  • Definition

    Otitis externa is an inflammation and/or infection of the ear canal. The ear canal is 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.

    The Ear Canal
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  • Diagnosis


    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
    CT scan
    may be necessary.

  • Prevention

    To help reduce your chance of getting otitis externa, or from having the condition recur, take these 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, or glycerin drops before and after swimming. This will help restore the natural healthy environment inside the ear canal.

  • Risk Factors

    Factors that may increase your chance of getting otitis externa include:

    • Frequent swimming in chlorinated water, stagnant water, or increasingly warm water
    • Not rinsing all of the soap from the ear canal while showering or bathing
    • Younger age with narrow ear canals
    • Insertion of any object into the ear canal causing damage to the lining
    • Skin conditions, such as eczema, that cause breaks in the skin of the ear canal
    • Ear drum rupture from a middle ear infection (otitis media)
    • Diabetes
    • Medical conditions resulting in a compromised immune system


    People with weak immune systems or who have a chronic illness, such as diabetes or
    AIDS
    , may suffer an aggressive form called malignant otitis externa. 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
    paralysis
    .

  • Symptoms

    Otitis externa may cause:

    • Redness and/or itching inside the ear canal
    • Pain in the ear, sometimes severe, that may worsen when chewing or talking, and with pulling on the ear
    • Hearing loss or a plugged-up or pressure sensation of the ear
    • Drainage from the ear

  • Treatment

    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
    people with diabetes, where the infection can spread and cause malignant otitis externa.

    Talk with your doctor about the best treatment plan for you. Options may include: