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Otitis Externa


What is otitis externa?

Otitis externa, or swimmer's ear, is an infection in the outer ear canal. This canal goes from the outside of the ear to the eardrum.

Ear Anatomy

What causes otitis externa?

Otitis externa is most commonly caused by bacteria. It can also be caused by damage to the skin lining your outer ear canal. You can scratch or damage the skin lining when you put cotton swabs or other objects in your ears.

What increases my risk for otitis externa?

  • Swimming
  • Hot, humid weather
  • Hearing aid use
  • A lot of ear wax
  • Allergic skin disorders, such as eczema
  • Medical conditions that make it easier to get infections, such as diabetes

What are the signs and symptoms of otitis externa?

  • You have ear pain.
  • Your outer ear canal is red and swollen.
  • You have clear fluid or pus leaking out of your ear.
  • Your outer ear canal is itchy and you see a rash.
  • You have trouble hearing because your ear is plugged.
  • You feel a bump in your ear canal, called a polyp.
  • Flakes of skin fall from your ear.

How is otitis externa diagnosed?

Your healthcare provider will ask about your signs and symptoms. He will look inside your ears. He may blow a puff of air inside your ears. These tests tell healthcare providers if your eardrums look healthy. You may also need a hearing test.

How is otitis externa treated?

  • NSAIDs , such as ibuprofen, help decrease swelling, pain, and fever. This medicine is available with or without a doctor's order. NSAIDs can cause stomach bleeding or kidney problems in certain people. If you take blood thinner medicine, always ask if NSAIDs are safe for you. Always read the medicine label and follow directions. Do not give these medicines to children under 6 months of age without direction from your child's healthcare provider.
  • Acetaminophen decreases pain and fever. It is available without a doctor's order. Ask how much to take and how often to take it. Follow directions. Acetaminophen can cause liver damage if not taken correctly.
  • Ear drops that contain an antibiotic may be given. The antibiotic helps treat a bacterial infection. You may also be given steroid medicine. The steroid helps decrease redness, swelling, and pain.
  • Ear wicking removes fluid or wax from your outer ear canal. Healthcare providers may insert a small tube, called a wick, into your ear to help drain fluid. A wick also may be used to put medicine into your ear canal if the canal is blocked.

How do I use eardrops?

  • Lie down on your side with your infected ear facing up.
  • Carefully drip the correct number of eardrops into your ear. Have another person help you if possible.
  • Gently move the outside part of your ear back and forth to help the medicine reach your ear canal.
  • Stay lying down in the same position (with your ear facing up) for 3 to 5 minutes.

How can I prevent otitis externa?

  • Do not put cotton swabs or foreign objects in your ears.
  • Wrap a clean moist washcloth around your finger, and use it to clean your outer ear and remove extra ear wax.
  • Use ear plugs when you swim. Dry your outer ears completely after you swim or bathe.

When should I seek immediate care?

  • You have severe ear pain.
  • You are suddenly unable to hear at all.
  • You have new swelling in your face, behind your ears, or in your neck.
  • You suddenly cannot move part of your face.
  • Your face suddenly feels numb.

When should I contact my healthcare provider?

  • You have a fever.
  • Your signs and symptoms do not get better after 2 days of treatment.
  • Your signs and symptoms go away for a time, but then come back.
  • You have questions or concerns about your condition or care.

Care Agreement

You have the right to help plan your care. Learn about your health condition and how it may be treated. Discuss treatment options with your healthcare providers to decide what care you want to receive. You always have the right to refuse treatment. The above information is an educational aid only. It is not intended as medical advice for individual conditions or treatments. Talk to your doctor, nurse or pharmacist before following any medical regimen to see if it is safe and effective for you.

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Further information

Always consult your healthcare provider to ensure the information displayed on this page applies to your personal circumstances.