Staywell Custom Communications Health Portal

Otitis Externa

What is otitis externa?

Otitis externa is an inflammation, irritation, or infection of the outer ear canal. This is the channel leading from the outer ear to the ear drum. Water that stays trapped in the ear canal (such as when swimming) may:

  • Provide a source for the growth of bacteria and fungi
  • Soften the skin and let infectious organisms get into the skin
  • Wash away the ear wax which acts as a natural guard against infection

What causes otitis externa?

It is more common in children but can also happen in adults. Many things can raise the chance of getting swimmer's ear. One of the factors is excessive wetness. This can occur with frequent swimming, but it can also happen for other reasons. Other possible causes of this infection include:

  • Being in warm, damp places
  • Harsh cleaning of the ear canal
  • Injury to the ear canal
  • Dry ear canal skin
  • Foreign body in the ear canal
  • Excess ear wax (cerumen)
  • Eczema and other inflammatory skin conditions

What are the risk factors for otitis externa?

You are at a higher risk for otitis externa if your outer ear is exposed to conditions that may harm the skin. This lets bacteria get into the skin. Devices that are routinely worn within the ear canal can cause damage and irritation. This includes hearing aids, headphones, or ear plugs.

If you are exposed to conditions that remove the protective layers from the skin, you are more likely to get infected with bacteria or fungus. For example, if you swim often. The moisture removes the protective layer of ear wax and softens underlying skin.

What are the symptoms of otitis externa?

These are the most common symptoms of otitis externa:

  • Redness of the outer ear
  • Itching inside the ear
  • Pain, especially when touching or wiggling the ear lobe; pain may spread to the head, neck, or side of the face
  • Drainage from the ear
  • Swollen glands in the upper neck or around the ear
  • Swollen ear canal
  • Muffled hearing or hearing loss
  • Full or plugged-up feeling in the ear
  • Fever

The symptoms of otitis externa may look like other medical conditions or problems. Always check with your health care provider for a diagnosis.

How is otitis externa diagnosed?

Otitis externa may be diagnosed with a  medical history and physical exam. Your provider may use an otoscope. This is a lighted instrument that helps to view inside the ear. This will help your  provider see if you also have a middle ear infection (otitis media).

Your health care provider may also take a culture of the drainage from the ear. The results can help guide treatment.

How is otitis externa treated?

With proper treatment, otitis externa often clears up within 7 to 10 days. Your health care provider will figure out the best treatment based on:

  • How old you are
  • Your overall health and health history
  • How sick you are
  • How well you can handle specific medicine, procedures, or therapies
  • How long the condition is expected to last
  • Your opinion or preference

Treatment may include

  • Antibiotic or antifungal ear drops
  • Corticosteroid ear drops to help decrease the swelling
  • Pain medicine
  • Keeping the ear dry, as directed by your healthcare provider

What can I do to prevent otitis externa?

The following are some hints to help prevent this condition:

  • Use ear plugs for swimming or bathing to prevent constant moisture inside the ear.
  • Do not aggressively clean your ear canal.
  • Avoid manipulating the outer auditory canal.
  • Use the coolest setting on a hairdryer to dry the outer canal after swimming or when moist.

Key points

  • Otitis externa is an irritation or infection of the outer part of the ear canal. It’s usually caused by infection.
  • Health problems that lower the skin protection in the ear canal or cause injury or irritation can cause it.
  • Avoiding the cause (moisture, irritation) can prevent otitis externa.
  • Medications may need to be prescribed by a health care provider to help ease the symptoms.

Next steps

Tips to help you get the most from a visit to your health care provider:

  • Before your visit, write down questions you want answered.
  • Bring someone with you to help you ask questions and remember what your provider tells you.
  • At the visit, write down the names of new medicines, treatments, or tests, and any new instructions your provider gives you.
  • If you have a follow-up appointment, write down the date, time, and purpose for that visit.
  • Know how you can contact your provider if you have questions.
Online Medical Reviewer: Dozier, Tennille, RN, BSN, RDMS
Online Medical Reviewer: Kacker, Ashutosh, MD
Last Review Date: 10/1/2016
© 2000-2017 The StayWell Company, LLC. 800 Township Line Road, Yardley, PA 19067. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.