Otitis externa is a condition that causes inflammation (redness and swelling) of the external ear canal – the tube between the outer ear and eardrum.
Otitis externa is often referred to as "swimmer's ear", as repeated exposure to water can make the ear canal more vulnerable to inflammation (otitis externa is one of the most common conditions to affect competitive swimmers).
Symptoms of otitis externa include:
- ear pain, which can range from moderate to severe
- a discharge of liquid or pus from the ear
- some degree of temporary hearing loss
Usually only one ear is affected.
With treatment, these symptoms should clear up within two-to-three days.
In some cases the symptoms can persist for several months, which is known as chronic otitis externa. The symptoms of chronic otitis externa tend to be much milder.
Read more about the symptoms of otitis externa.
What causes otitis externa?
Repeated exposure to water increases your risk of otitis externa. This is because water can clear earwax out of the external ear canal, making it very itchy. If you try to scratch inside your ear, the sensitive skin of the canal can break down, allowing an infection to take place.
Water in the ear also creates a moist environment, which encourages bacteria to grow.
Other causes include:
- a spot (pimple) developing inside the ear
- a fungal infection
- something directly irritating the ear canal, such as a hearing aid or an ear plug
Read more about the causes of otitis externa.
Treating otitis externa
If you think you may have otitis externa, see your GP as it tends to last for several weeks if it is not treated.
Painkillers are used alongside eardrops to treat the underlying swelling and any infection.
In very severe cases of infection, antibiotics (that you take as a capsule, tablet or suspension that you drink), such as flucloxacillin, may be prescribed.
Read more about treating otitis externa.
Who is affected
Otitis externa is relatively common. It is estimated that around 10% of the population will be affected at some point in their lives.
The condition is slightly more common in women than men (possibly because more women go swimming regularly).
People with certain long-term (chronic) conditions, such as eczema, asthma or allergic rhinitis, are at greater risk of developing otitis externa.
If you are a regular swimmer, consider getting a swimmer’s hat to cover your ears and protect them from water. Ear plugs are not recommended as they can cause damage to your ear canals.
Make sure that you ear canals are clear of water after swimming, bathing or showering.
Read more about preventing otitis externa.
Complications of otitis externa are uncommon but some can be very serious.
A rare and potentially fatal complication of otitis externa is the infection spreading into the underlying bone – this is known as malignant otitis externa and may require surgery.
(There is an average 350 cases of malignant otitis externa each year in England).
Read more about the complications of otitis externa.