The Ear Canal  

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Otitis externa is an inflammation and/or infection of the ear canal. The ear canal is the tube leading from the outer ear to the eardrum. Because it is often found in swimmers, particularly in warm, humid climates, it is often referred to as swimmer’s ear.



Otitis externa is caused by infection, chemical irritation, or trauma. Trauma causes damage to the ear canal, which may cause inflammation or allow infection to invade.


Risk Factors  

Factors that may increase your chance of otitis externa include:

  • Frequent swimming in chlorinated water, stagnant water, or increasingly warm water
  • Not rinsing all of the soap from the ear canal while showering or bathing
  • Younger age with narrow ear canals
  • Insertion of any object into the ear canal causing damage to the lining
  • Skin conditions, such as eczema, that cause breaks in the skin of the ear canal
  • Eardrum rupture from a middle ear infection— otitis media
  • Diabetes
  • Medical conditions resulting in a compromised immune system

People with weak immune systems or who have a chronic illness, such as diabetes or AIDS , may get an aggressive form called malignant otitis externa. Malignant otitis externa results in infection of the cartilage and bone around the ear, as well as between the ear and the brain (the skull base). The condition can be severe and difficult to treat, causing nerve paralysis.



Otitis externa may cause:

  • Redness and/or itching inside the ear canal
  • Pain in the ear, sometimes severe, that may worsen when chewing or talking, and with pulling on the ear
  • Hearing loss or a plugged-up or pressure sensation of the ear
  • Drainage from the ear


Your doctor will ask about your symptoms and medical history, and perform a visual exam of the ear, including the ear canal and inner ear, using a lighted device called an otoscope. If malignant otitis externa is suspected, a CT scan may be necessary.



This condition can easily be treated but can become serious, even life-threatening in some people, if left untreated. This can be very serious particularly in people with diabetes, where the infection can spread and cause malignant otitis externa.

Talk with your doctor about the best treatment plan for you. Options may include:


If you have an infection, medication will depend on the cause of the infection. Other medications will help reduce other symptoms, such as pain and inflammation. Your doctor may recommend:

  • Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) taken orally to reduce pain and inflammation
  • Antibiotic ear drops to treat any infection
  • Oral antifungal medications to treat fungal infections
  • Oral antibiotics to treat severe infections or cellulitis of the ear canal
  • Corticosteroid ear drops to reduce inflammation (this may be combined with an antibiotic ear drop)
  • Intravenous antibiotics for malignant otitis externa

If the ear canal is very swollen, it may not allow the ear drops to get in. A small sponge, called a wick, may be inserted in the ear canal to absorb the drops. It is usually removed after 24-48 hours.


If medications or ear wash do not work, your doctor may need to remove any drainage or pus from the ear canal. However, this is rarely needed.