What is otitis externa?
The word otitis means inflammation of the ear, and externa relates to where in the ear the infection is. In this case it’s found in the ear canal – the tube that connects the outer part of the ear to the eardrum. The ear canal can become inflamed for a number of reasons, but it’s usually simple to treat and will clear after a few days. Although some cases may last longer.
Otitis externa symptoms
Otitis externa only tends to affect one ear and symptoms can include:
- Itching, redness or swelling in the ear canal
- Pain or discomfort in the ear
- Discharge from the ear
- Dry or flaky skin around the outer ear and ear canal
- Some temporary hearing loss in the affected ear
- Tenderness around the jaw
The causes of ear canal infection
Most cases of ear canal infections are caused by bacteria or fungus. This can happen if there’s an excessive amount of liquid in your ear canal (from swimming, sweating, or humid environments) which provides ideal conditions for bacterial growth. That’s why swimmers often get this type of ear infection, also known as swimmer’s ear.
The skin that lines your ear canal is quite sensitive and can be damaged if you scratch inside your ears or try to clean them with small objects like ear buds or hair pins. Getting products like shampoo, hair spray or hair dye might also irritate the skin.
If you already have a skin condition, like eczema or psoriasis, you might be more at risk of developing otitis externa, making the skin itchy and dry in and around in the ear canal.
Otitis externa treatments
If you have any of the symptoms of otitis externa, it’s best to go and see your GP. They’ll likely prescribe you some medicated ear drops or spray to help treat the infection and reduce any swelling or discomfort you may have. In most cases, this should help to clear it up in a few days.
In the meantime, you might want to take some paracetamol or ibuprofen to help with any pain you have. A warm compress over the ear might be helpful, too.
In more severe cases, your GP might prescribe you a course of antibiotic tablets. Or they might refer you to a specialist who might want to try a different method to treat the infection, carry out some tests, or clean the ear to make treatment more effective.
Otitis externa vs otitis media
Although both are ear infections, otitis externa and otitis media affect different parts of the ear and are quite different in their symptoms.
Otitis externa, or ear canal infection, affects the outer part of the ear, and doesn’t go any further than the ear drum. Otitis media, or middle ear infection, affects the area behind the eardrum and before the inner ear.
Both conditions, however, can be caused by putting things into the ear that either damage the skin of the ear canal, or the ear drum itself – leading to infection.
Preventing an ear canal infection
Although it’s not possible to completely prevent getting an ear infection, there are a few things you can do to reduce your risk of developing one or stop it from coming back.
- Avoid trying to clean your ears with cotton buds or other small objects – this can damage the delicate skin that lines the ear canal.
- Wear a swimming cap if you’re a regular swimmer or you could talk to an audiologist about custom ear protection to prevent water from getting into the ear.
- Avoid getting anything in your ears like shampoo or hair spray that could irritate the skin.
- See an audiologist about earwax removal if you have issues with excessive earwax.
With treatment, it can take a few days for a swollen ear canal to heal. Although in some cases this could last longer.
We’d always recommend seeing your GP if you think you have an ear infection – they will be able to advise the safest way to treat an ear infection and get you back to normal as soon as possible.
If you think you have an ear infection, it’s important that you see your GP rather than trying to treat it yourself as it can lead to further complications.
Some minor ear infections can clear on their own within three days. But if symptoms persist after three days, you should book an appointment with your GP.