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Otitis externa (swimmer's ear)

Otitis externa

Earache is a common symptom for those with otitis media or otitis externa. This can cause great discomfort for the sufferer.

Otitis externa, otherwise known as swimmer’s ear, is a condition that causes inflammation of the external ear canal, the tube between your outer ear and your eardrum. It is often referred to as swimmers ear as a common cause of the condition is water remaining in the ear canal after swimming. With treatment, any symptoms should clear up within a few days, however, in some severe cases, it may persist for several months or longer, despite normally only affecting one ear at any given time.

Symptoms of otitis externa

Some common symptoms of otitis externa include:

  • Ear pain, varying in severity according to the intensity of the infection
  • An itchy feeling in the ear canal
  • Temporary hearing loss, or difficulty understanding quiet sounds
  • Experience some discharge from the ear, normally a clear, white or yellow in colour
  • Redness and swelling of the outer ear and ear canal
  • Tenderness when moving the ear or jaw
  • Swollen and/or sore throat glands

Causes of otitis externa

Otitis externa can be attributed to a wide range of causes, as well as some triggers that might make you more susceptible to the condition. Possible triggers can include:

  • Overexposure to moisture
  • Swimming - especially in dirty water
  • Sweating and humid environments
  • Ear damage - most often caused by the insertion of cotton buds, or the incorrect insertion of ear plugs or earphones
  • Some chemicals - such as hair spray, hair dye and some ear wax softeners
  • Underlying skin conditions - including psoriasis, eczema and acne
  • A weak immune system or allergic conditions - such as asthma and diabetes, or as a result of certain cancer treatments such as chemotherapy

Common causes of otitis externa can include:

  • A bacterial infection - commonly caused by strains of pseudomonas aeruginosa or staphylococcus aureus
  • An allergic reaction to ear medication, ear plugs, certain shampoos or cosmetics
  • A fungal infection - this is more likely if you use antibacterial or steroid ear drops for an extended period of time
  • Discharge from a middle ear infection (otitis media)
  • Seborrhoeic dermatitis - a common skin condition where the naturally greasy areas of the skin become inflamed.
  • When a hair follicle in your ear becomes infected by bacteria, developing into a boil. It is very important not to squeeze or pop it without the advice of a medical professional, as it may spread the infection.

Otitis externa treatments

Otitis externa can usually be remedied with a simple course of ear drops, as prescribed by your local GP. If your symptoms linger or your case has been particularly severe, you may be referred to a specialist who may undertake micro-suction or dry swabs to remove ear wax and other debris to make your drops more effective. Severe cases may require an earwig, a plug made from soft cotton gauze that helps insert medication into your ear.

While you take your medication, it is important to take certain steps at home to help aid your recovery. Avoid getting your ear wet by wearing a shower cap when you bathe and gently remove any discharge by gently swabbing around your ear rather than in it. Removing any hearing aids, ear plugs and earrings will also help prevent the spread of bacteria.

If you are experiencing symptoms of otitis externa, it is important to make an appointment with your local doctor.

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Learn more about ear related issues

To learn more about other ear infections, visit our otitis media, labyrinthitis or ear infection pages.

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