What Is an External Ear Infection?

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  • Written By: Deneatra Harmon
  • Edited By: R. Halprin
  • Last Modified Date: 05 October 2019
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An external ear infection, also sometimes called swimmer’s ear, is a problem that involves inflammation and itching of the skin of the outer ear canal. Bacteria cause most cases of external ear infection. Symptoms of swimmer’s ear range from mild to severe, but common ones include swelling, redness, and fluid discharge. Cleaning and using prescription ear drops usually help to clear ear infection symptoms. Tips like keeping ears dry and avoiding putting objects into the ear help to safeguard against an ear infection.

Medically termed otitis externa by doctors, the external or outer ear canal is the tube that connects from the visible part of the ear to the eardrum. When water, bacteria, or other elements reach the skin lining the outer ear, the risk of an external ear infection increases. The ear canals have the ability to clean out the ears and prevent infections through wax buildup, but sometimes the ears may become overwhelmed with an overproduction of wax or moisture from sweat and swimming. The extra moisture gives bacteria easy access to the external ear because it is already a dark and warm environment. Other causes of ear infection include skin allergies such as eczema, injuries to the outer ear, and exposure to hair products or anything that traps moisture in the outer ear.


Signs of an external ear infection usually start as mild, but they can progress if the person ignores the problem and does not get treatment. Early symptoms of an infection include itching along the outer part of the skin outside of the ear canal, followed by some redness from irritation. Any trapped water or moisture may also drain out of the ear. Additional discomfort follows if the early symptoms go untreated, accompanied by difficulty hearing, fullness, and a disgusting discharge of pus from the ear. See a doctor immediately for serious ear-infection symptoms such as fever, pain, swelling, and flaking of the outer ear skin.

In treating this condition, a doctor usually examines the infected ear to remove any discharge and then prescribes antibiotic ear drops. Oral antibiotics may also be prescribed to treat severe external ear infection symptoms along with ibuprofen to alleviate pain. In general, an ear infection should disappear in no more than 10 days when following the appropriate treatment.

Preventative measures help to avoid an outer ear infection. Medical experts recommend keeping the ears dry as much as possible, especially after bathing or swimming. Limiting swimming or other water sports also helps to prevent infection. A person should never put a cotton swab or other object into the ear because it may cause injury that leads to infection. Cotton balls placed gently into the ears may offer a solution for protecting the ears from water, hair spray, or other substances that may cause irritation or infection.


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