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External Otitis (Acute)

by Bradley W. Kesser, MD

External otitis is an acute infection of the ear canal typically caused by bacteria ( Pseudomonas is most common). Symptoms include pain, discharge, and hearing loss if the ear canal has swollen shut; manipulation of the auricle causes pain. Diagnosis is based on inspection. Treatment is with debridement and topical drugs, including antibiotics, corticosteroids, and acetic acid or a combination.

External otitis may manifest as a localized furuncle or as a diffuse infection of the entire canal (generalized or acute external otitis). This condition is often called swimmer’s ear; the combination of water in the canal and use of cotton swabs is the major risk factor. Malignant external otitis (see Malignant External Otitis) is a severe Pseudomonasosteomyelitis of the temporal bone affecting diabetics and immunocompromised patients.

Etiology

Diffuse external otitis is usually caused by bacteria, such as Pseudomonas aeruginosa, Proteus vulgaris, Staphylococcus aureus, or Escherichia coli. Fungal external otitis (otomycosis), typically caused by Aspergillus niger or Candida albicans, is less common. Furuncles usually are caused by S. aureus.

Predisposing conditions include

  • Allergies

  • Psoriasis

  • Eczema

  • Seborrheic dermatitis

  • Decreased canal acidity (possibly due to the repeated presence of water)

  • Irritants (eg, hair spray, hair dye)

  • Inadvertent injury to the canal caused by cleaning with cotton swabs or other objects

Attempts to clean the ear canal with cotton swabs can cause microabrasions of the delicate skin of the ear canal (which act as portals of entry for bacteria) and may push debris and cerumen deeper into the canal. These accumulated substances tend to trap water, resulting in skin maceration that sets the stage for bacterial infection.

Symptoms and Signs

Patients have pain and drainage. Sometimes, a foul-smelling discharge and hearing loss occur if the canal becomes swollen or filled with purulent debris. Exquisite tenderness accompanies traction of the pinna or pressure over the tragus. Otoscopic examination is painful and difficult to conduct. It shows the ear canal to be red, swollen, and littered with moist, purulent debris.

Otomycosis is more pruritic than painful, and patients also complain of aural fullness. Otomycosis caused by A. niger usually manifests with grayish black or yellow dots (fungal conidiophores) surrounded by a cottonlike material (fungal hyphae). Infection caused by C. albicans does not show any visible fungi but usually contains a thickened, creamy white exudate.

Furuncles cause severe pain and may drain sanguineous, purulent material. They appear as a focal, erythematous swelling (pimple).

Diagnosis

  • Clinical evaluation

Diagnosis is based on inspection. When discharge is copious, external otitis can be difficult to differentiate from an acute, purulent otitis media (see Otitis Media (Acute)) with tympanic membrane perforation; pain with pulling on the pinna may indicate an external otitis. Fungal infection is diagnosed by appearance or culture.

Treatment

  • Debridement

  • Topical acetic acid and corticosteroids

  • Sometimes topical antibiotics

In acute external otitis, topical antibiotics and corticosteroids are effective. First, the infected debris should be gently and thoroughly removed from the canal with suction or dry cotton wipes. Water irrigation of the canal is discouraged. Mild external otitis can be treated by altering the ear canal’s pH with 2% acetic acid and by relieving inflammation with topical hydrocortisone; these are given as 5 drops tid for 7 days. Moderate external otitis requires the addition of an antibacterial solution or suspension, such as neomycin/polymyxin, ciprofloxacin, or ofloxacin. When inflammation of the ear canal is relatively severe, an ear wick should be placed into the ear canal and wetted with Burow solution (5% aluminum acetate) or a topical antibiotic 4 times/day. The wick helps direct the drops deeper into the external canal when the canal is greatly swollen. The wick is left in place for 24 to 72 h, after which time the swelling may have receded enough to allow the instillation of drops directly into the canal.

Severe external otitis or the presence of cellulitis extending beyond the ear canal may require systemic antibiotics, such as cephalexin 500 mg po qid for 10 days or ciprofloxacin 500 mg po bid for 10 days. An analgesic, such as an NSAID or even an oral opioid, may be necessary for the first 24 to 48 h.

Fungal external otitis requires thorough cleaning of the ear canal and application of an antimycotic solution (eg, gentian violet, cresylate acetate, nystatin, clotrimazole, or even a combination of acetic acid and isopropyl alcohol). However, these solutions should not be used if the tympanic membrane is perforated because they can cause severe pain or damage to the inner ear. Repeated cleanings and treatments may be needed.

Dry ear precautions (eg, wearing shower cap, avoiding swimming) are strongly advised for both external otitis and fungal external otitis.

A furuncle, if obviously pointing, should be incised and drained. Incision is of little value, however, if the patient is seen at an early stage. Topical antibiotics are ineffective; oral antistaphylococcal antibiotics should be given. Analgesics, such as oxycodone with acetaminophen, may be necessary for pain relief. Dry heat can also lessen pain and hasten resolution.

Pearls & Pitfalls

  • Applying a few drops of a 1:1 mixture of rubbing alcohol and vinegar (as long as the eardrum is intact) immediately after swimming can help prevent swimmer's ear (and is also an excellent treatment for otomycosis).

Prevention

External otitis often can be prevented by applying a few drops of a 1:1 mixture of rubbing alcohol and vinegar (as long as the eardrum is intact) immediately after swimming. The alcohol helps remove water, and the vinegar alters the pH of the canal. Use of cotton swabs or other implements in the canal should be strongly discouraged.

Key Points

  • Acute external otitis is usually bacterial; fungal causes are less likely and cause more itching and less pain.

  • Severe pain with pulling on the pinna suggests acute external otitis.

  • Under close and direct visualization, gently remove infected debris from the canal with suction or dry cotton wipes.

  • Do not irrigate the ear.

  • For mild cases, apply acetic acid and hydrocortisone drops.

  • For more severe cases, debridement is critical along with topical antibiotics (use a wick if the canal is swollen); sometimes give systemic antibiotics.

Resources In This Article

Drugs Mentioned In This Article

  • Drug Name
    Select Trade
  • OXYCONTIN
  • NYSTOP
  • MYCELEX
  • NEO-FRADIN
  • FLOXIN OTIC
  • CILOXAN, CIPRO
  • KEFLEX
  • TYLENOL

* This is a professional Version *