Otitis externa is a condition that causes inflammation (redness and swelling) of the external ear canal, which is the tube between the external ear and the eardrum.
Otitis externa is often referred to as “swimmer’s ear” because repeated exposure to water can make the ear canal more vulnerable to inflammation.
Symptoms of external otitis include:
- ear pain, which can be severe
- itchy ear canal
- a discharge of fluid or pus from the ear
- some degree of temporary hearing loss
- fungal infections
- damaging the skin inside the ear
- have water regularly in the ear
- allergic rhinitis
Usually only one ear is affected.
With treatment, these symptoms should go away within a few days. however, some cases may persist for several months or more.
read more about the symptoms of external otitis
when to see your GP
You should see your GP if you may have otitis externa.
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Your GP will ask about your symptoms and if you regularly use any items that go into your ears, such as earphones or earplugs. They may also examine the inside of your ear using an instrument called an otoscope.
If you have recurrent episodes of otitis externa that have not responded to treatment, your GP may take a sample from inside your ear. this will be tested to help determine what type of infection you have, if any, so that appropriate medication can be prescribed.
what causes external otitis?
Most cases of external otitis are caused by a bacterial infection, although the condition can also be caused by:
There are several things that can increase the chance of developing otitis externa, including:
Water entering the ear is especially important as it can cause scratching of the inside of the ear, and moisture also provides an ideal environment for bacteria to grow.
Read more about the causes of external otitis.
who is affected?
Otitis externa is relatively common. it is estimated that around 1 in 10 people will be affected at some point in their life.
The condition is slightly more common in women than in men and is most often diagnosed in adults ages 45 to 75.
People with certain long-term (chronic) conditions are at higher risk of developing the condition. these include:
how external otitis is treated
Otitis externa sometimes improves without treatment, but it may take several weeks. your GP may prescribe ear drops which usually improve symptoms within a few days.
There are several different types of ear drops that can be used to treat otitis externa, but they all tend to be used several times a day for about a week.
Your GP may refer you to a specialist for further treatment and advice if symptoms are severe or do not respond to treatment.
read more about the treatment of external otitis
prevent external otitis
To help reduce your chances of developing otitis externa, you should avoid putting cotton swabs and other things in your ears (including your fingers), as this can damage the sensitive skin of the ear canal.
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If you’re a regular swimmer, consider wearing earplugs when swimming or wearing a swim cap to cover your ears and protect them from the water.
You should also try to avoid getting water, soap, or shampoo in your ears when you shower or bathe.
read more about the prevention of external otitis
complications of external otitis are rare, but some can be very serious.
A rare complication of external otitis is necrotizing external otitis, which is when an infection spreads from the external ear canal to the surrounding bone.
This requires prompt treatment with antibiotics and sometimes surgery, as it can be fatal if left untreated.
read more about the complications of external otitis