The medical term for an outer ear infection is otitis externa. This means inflammation of your outer ear canal (the tube that leads into your ear). It’s often caused by an infection.
An outer ear infection can be acute or chronic. When describing an illness, the terms 'acute' and 'chronic' refer to how long you have had it, not to how serious the condition is. An acute outer ear infection comes on suddenly and usually goes away within a week of receiving treatment. Chronic outer ear infection causes ongoing symptoms that may last for several months or keep reoccurring.
Cleaning your ears with cotton buds can cause an outer ear infection. This can cause damage to your ear canal and irritate it, and removing too much wax or pushing wax into your ear can increase your risk of inflammation and infection.
Sometimes, a hair follicle at the entrance to your ear canal becomes infected, causing a boil. This is called localised otitis externa.
If an infection affects more of your ear canal and reaches your ear drum, this is called widespread or diffuse otitis externa. This type of outer ear infection is sometimes called swimmer's ear because it often develops after you have spent time in water.
Symptoms of an outer ear infection can include:
If you have any of these symptoms, see your GP.
Infections can spread across your skin (cellulitis) or form a large abscess.
Otitis externa can sometimes progress to a severe infection called malignant otitis. This is when the infection spreads into the bones surrounding your ear, which make up your skull. It can be life-threatening without treatment. If you have problems with your immune system or diabetes, you may be more likely to get malignant otitis.
If left untreated, an outer ear infection can cause deafness. This is because your ear canal can become narrowed or completely blocked.
Outer ear infections are usually caused by bacteria or yeast (fungal infection). Anything that irritates the skin of your ear canal or causes an allergic reaction can also cause inflammation.
You’re more likely to develop an outer ear infection if you:
Your GP will ask about your symptoms and examine you. He or she may also ask you about your medical history.
Your GP may look into your ear using an instrument called an otoscope to check for signs of swelling and infection. He or she may ask you to move your jaw to see if you feel pain.
If your symptoms don't improve after treatment or they reoccur, your GP may take a sample of the discharge from your ear using a swab. This will be sent to a laboratory for testing to find out whether your ear infection is caused by a bacterial or fungal infection.
If you have reoccurring outer ear infections that don’t respond to treatment, or you have suspected malignant otitis, your GP will refer you to an ear, nose and throat (ENT) specialist – a doctor specialising in conditions affecting the ear.
Treatment usually consists of controlling pain and treating the inflammation.
The following medicines can help relieve and treat the symptoms of an outer ear infection.
Most ear drops will contain a combination of steroids, antibiotics and antifungals and some come in a spray rather than ear drops. You may need to have your ear cleaned and any discharge or wax removed by your doctor or nurse before using ear drops to treat an infection. You may be asked to lie down or tilt you head to the side with your affected ear facing upwards when you use ear drops. Sometimes, it’s advised to keep still for ten minutes after using ear drops or a spray.
It may be difficult to get ear drops into your ear if your ear is swollen, so your doctor or nurse may apply the treatment using an ear wick. An ear wick is ribbon gauze or a sponge wick, which is placed in your ear and absorbs the drops when they are applied. This allows the ear drops to stay in constant contact with the affected part of your ear. The ear wick is usually left in place for a couple of days, before your doctor or nurse removes it. The ear wick is usually fitted and removed in hospital.
Alternatively, your doctor or nurse may smear a small strip of gauze dressing with antibiotic ointment and gently place it in your ear canal. You may be shown how to remove the dressing yourself.
You can help to prevent an outer ear infection by taking steps to keep your ears clean and dry.
The following tips can help to reduce your risk of having an outer ear infection.
Produced by Natalie Heaton, Bupa Health Information Team, September 2012.
For answers to frequently asked questions on this topic, see FAQs.
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This information was published by Bupa's Health Information Team and is based on reputable sources of medical evidence. It has been reviewed by appropriate medical or clinical professionals. Photos are only for illustrative purposes and do not reflect every presentation of a condition. The content is intended only for general information and does not replace the need for personal advice from a qualified health professional. For more details on how we produce our content and its sources, visit the About our Health Information page.
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