Often referred to as swimmer’s ear, otitis externa is an infection of the skin along the outer ear canal. The infection eventually leads to ear pain, swelling and blockage. In some cases, the ear canal may swell completely shut.

Is otitis externa easy to diagnose?

Yes. With a gentle but firm tug on the earlobe, an ENT physician can visually examine the swollen ear canal, assess its tenderness and identify any infected debris inside.

What are the causes of otitis externa?

Infection occurs when fungus or bacteria—most commonly Pseudomonas Aeruginosa—enter and inflame the skin around the ear canal. There are three ways this commonly occurs:

  • Water exposure. When water remains in the ear, it can soften the skin barrier, making it easier for bacteria to invade and cause infection.
  • Q-tips & fingers. When ears are “cleaned” with cotton swabs or fingers, the skin of the canal is abraded, and its protective layer of wax is removed. This allows bacteria to enter.
  • Skin conditions. Pre-existing conditions, such as eczema, that damage the skin barrier make the ear canal more susceptible to bacterial infection.

How can otitis externa be prevented?

The best course of prevention is to keep ears dry, avoid Q-tips and manage existing skin conditions. In addition, swimmers and individuals frequently exposed to water can use alcohol drops or a hair dryer to evaporate moisture from the ear canal and reduce the risk of infection.

How is otitis externa treated?

Otitis externa is treated by placing topical antibiotic drops in the ear canal over a period of time. Periodically, an ENT physician may also need to clear infected debris from the ear canal. In severe cases, oral antibiotics may be necessary.

To learn more or to speak to one of our ENT specialists, request an appointment below, or call 515-223-4368.

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