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Ear Canal Infection (Swimmer's Ear)


The Manual's Editorial Staff

Last full review/revision Apr 2020| Content last modified Apr 2020
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What is external otitis?

External otitis is an infection of your ear canal (the tube that connects the outside of your ear to your eardrum). It differs from a middle ear infection (otitis media), which is an infection behind your ear drum.

External otitis is especially common after swimming, which is why it’s often called “swimmer’s ear.” But most people who have it weren't swimming.

  • External otitis is usually caused by bacteria

  • You'll have ear pain and a white or yellow fluid draining from your ear

  • Doctors can tell if you have external otitis by examining your ear

  • Doctors will clean out your ear and give you antibiotic eardrops and pain relievers

  • Keep water out of your ear until the infection clears up

The Outer Ear

The Outer Ear

What causes external otitis?

External otitis is usually caused by:

  • Bacterial infection

Sometimes it's caused by a fungal infection.

You're more likely to get external otitis if you:

  • Have skin problems in your ear, such as psoriasis, eczema, or an allergic reaction (dermatitis of the ear)

  • Swim in a lake rather than a pool

  • Use a hearing aid or ear buds

  • Irritate your ear canal with cotton swabs

What are the symptoms of external otitis?

Symptoms include:

  • Itching

  • Pain

  • White or yellow fluid draining from your ear

If the infection is bad, your ear canal may swell shut and you may have trouble hearing.

Sometimes, the infection affects just one spot in your ear canal and forms a painful pimple. When the pimple breaks open, blood and pus leak out.

In rare cases, your ear infection can spread to the bones of your skull (malignant external otitis).

How can doctors tell if I have external otitis?

Doctors tell if you have external otitis by looking in your ear.

How do doctors treat external otitis?

Doctors may:

  • Use suction or dry cotton wipes to clean out your ear

  • Have you use ear drops several times a day for up to a week

  • If your infection is severe, they may place a strip of gauze in your ear for a day or two to help the medicine get into your ear

  • Cut open any pimples to let the pus out

  • Tell you not to swim or fly for a while and to keep water out of your ear

How can I prevent external otitis?

To lower your chance of getting external otitis:

  • After swimming, put drops in your ear made from a solution of half white vinegar and half rubbing alcohol—don't do this, though, if you have any problems with your eardrum

  • Don't poke cotton swabs or other objects into your ears to try to clean them—this can push dirt further into your ear and hurt your ear canal

  • Keep hair spray, hair dye, or other chemicals out of your ear

  • Clean earplugs or hearing aids before you use them

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