(otitis externa) is a painful inflammation and infection of the
ear canal . It occurs when the protective film that covers the ear canal
(lipid layer) is removed. This causes the ear canal to look red and swollen.
The ear canal may be narrower than normal and is tender when the outside of the
ear is gently pulled up and back.
Swimmer's ear may develop when
water, sand, dirt, or other debris gets into the ear canal. Since it often
occurs when excess water enters the ear canal, a common name for this
inflammation is "swimmer's ear." If you have had swimmer's ear in the past, you
are more likely to get it again.
A rare but serious infection
called malignant external otitis can develop if bacteria invade the bones
inside the ear canal and spread to the base of the skull. Not many people get
this infection—it is mainly seen in older adults who also have
diabetes, people who have
HIV, and children who have
impaired immune systems—but it can be fatal. Symptoms
include ear pain with sudden facial paralysis, hoarseness, and throat pain.
Antibiotics are used to treat this infection.
Other causes of
inflammation or infection of the ear canal include:
- Bony overgrowths in the
ear canal called exostoses.
- Bubble baths, soaps, and
- Cleaning the ear canal harshly or with a sharp
- Headphones inserted into the ear.
the ear canal with a cotton swab, bobby pin, fingernail, or other sharp
- Skin problems, such as
You are more likely to get swimmer's ear if:
- You have a very narrow or hairy ear canal.
- You have earwax stuck in the ear canal (impacted) because you commonly use cotton swabs that may push the ear wax deeper into the ear canal.
Symptoms can include
itching, pain, and a feeling of fullness in the ear. Your ear canal may be
swollen. You may have moderate to severe pain, drainage, or hearing loss.
Unlike a middle ear infection (acute otitis media), the pain is worse
when you chew, press on the "tag" in front of the ear, or wiggle your
You may be able to prevent swimmer's ear. Symptoms often
get better or go away with home treatment.
symptoms to decide if and when you should see a doctor.