Infection of the ear canal (external otitis)

Infection of the ear canal (external otitis) is usually caused by bacteria or fungi and is characterised by severe earache.

Overview

Infection of the ear canal (external otitis) is usually caused by bacteria or fungi and is characterised by severe earache. Sometimes it is caused by germs in the swimming pool (thus the name 'swimmer’s ear'). To prevent infection, ears should not be cleaned with cotton buds.

Symptoms

Main symptoms

  • Initially, the ear is mostly itchy
  • Severe earache
  • Ear canal is swollen and red (which may not be visible from the outside)

Other symptoms

  • Discharge from the ear
  • Hearing loss
  • Fever

Causes and treatment

Causes

Small breaks in the delicate skin of the ear canal (e.g. through using cotton buds to clean the ear) can allow bacteria and other germs such as fungi to enter, thus causing infection. Infection can also be caused by germs in swimming pools (thus the name 'swimmer's ear'). Diabetes patients and people with weakened immune systems can develop acute infection (malignant external otitis). In this case, the infection can spread to the surrounding bone and nerves.

Further treatment by your doctor / in hospital

External otitis can be diagnosed by careful external examination of the ear by a family doctor or an ear, nose and throat (ENT) specialist.

Possible tests
  • Careful examination of the ear with special devices (e.g. ear microscope)
  • Smear test to identify germs
  • Hearing test
  • Blood test
Possible therapies
  • Professional cleaning of the ear canal
  • Ear drops/ointment (with antibiotics, if necessary)
  • Painkillers

The infection can sometimes last for a long time, but usually heals without complications.

What can I do myself?

  • Very rarely or never clean the ears with cotton buds, as this can injure the skin of the ear canal and remove the protective layer of earwax
  • If the build-up of earwax causes problems, have your ears cleaned professionally by a doctor
  • Thoroughly dry the ears after swimming/showering

When to see a doctor?

  • If you have severe earache
  • If you have diabetes
  • If facial muscle movement is impaired
  • Sudden onset of hearing loss

Synonyms

otitis externa, swimmer’s ear, external otitis

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CSS offers no guarantee for the accuracy and completeness of the information. The information published is no substitute for professional advice from a doctor or pharmacist.

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