Otitis Externa

Inflammation of the ear canal, commonly known as “swimmer’s ear”

  • Swimming or wearing a hearing aid or earplugs are risk factors
  • Age, gender, and genetics are not significant factors

In otitis externa, the ear canal becomes inflamed, usually because of bacterial, viral, or fungal infection. Otitis externa often develops after swimming because persistent moisture within the ear canal increases the risk of infection. The condition is also more common in people who work in a hot and humid environment or who wear a hearing aid or earplugs. Scratching the ear with a cotton swab or fingernail is another cause of otitis externa. Less commonly, the infection occurs as a reaction to chemicals such as those in eardrops or hair dye.

What are the symptoms?

The symptoms of otitis externa usually appear over 1–2 days and may include:

  • Itching and/or pain within the ear canal at the affected site.

  • Discharge of pus from the ear.

If pus blocks the canal, see your doctor rather than trying to remove it yourself.

What might be done?

Your doctor will examine your ear with an otoscope (see Otoscopy). If there is pus present, indicating infection, he or she may take a swab to identify the organism responsible. The ear canal may also be cleaned out using a suction device. Depending on the type of infection present, your doctor may prescribe eardrops that contain an antibiotic or antifungal and/or a corticosteroid (see Drugs acting on the ear). An oral painkiller may also be given to relieve discomfort.

If you have a severe bacterial infection, your doctor may prescribe oral antibiotics. Most viral infections are treated solely with painkillers. However, if the condition is caused by the herpes virus, you may be prescribed an oral antiviral drug, sometimes with a corticosteroid. The disorder usually clears up in a few days.

From the 2010 revision of the Complete Home Medical Guide © Dorling Kindersley Limited.

The subjects, conditions and treatments covered in this encyclopaedia are for information only and may not be covered by your insurance product should you make a claim.

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