What is an outer ear infection?

By Brooke Strickland

An outer ear infection is often called swimmer’s ear.  It is an infection of the outer ear canal; this is the canal that runs from the eardrum to the external part of your ear and head.  These types of infections can happen in children and adults. 

What causes outer ear infections?

Moisture: This type of infection is often called swimmer’s ear because it is often caused by moisture that is built up after submerging your head in water like you do when you swim.  This buildup of water can create a damp area inside the canal.  This is a perfect place for growing bacteria.  

Irritation or abrasions: If you sleep with ear plugs all the time, wear hearing aids, put your fingers in your ears often, or use cotton swabs (q-tips) in your ears, there is an increased risk of developing an outer ear infection.   This is because the lining of your canal is very sensitive and if any type of scratch or damage occurs, bacteria can enter quickly and turn into an infection.

What are the symptoms?

There are several signs that you might have an outer ear infection.  Your ear will likely hurt when you touch it, especially if you tug on it.  You may also feel itching inside the canal or your hearing may be stifled.  You might also feel like your ear is “full” and there may be clear fluid or pus leaking from the ear.  Fever may be present, but not always. 

What is the treatment?

The first step is to clean any discharge from the ear to open the canal.  Then, eardrops are usually prescribed.  With some infections, more treatment may be needed including antifungal drugs, steroids to alleviate inflammation, oral antibiotics, or acidic medications to restore proper antibacterial equality to the ear. 

To avoid developing an outer ear infection, use a hair dryer to help dry your ears out after getting them wet.  In addition, try not to use foreign objects to clean your ear canal.  To avoid any damage, try putting a few drops of mineral oil into the canal to help loosen earwax buildup.  If you use ear plugs, sanitize them with alcohol after using them so bacteria won’t form. 

It’s very important to take quick action and contact your doctor if you have the symptoms of an outer ear infection. If left untreated for a significant amount of time, the infection can spread to surrounding tissues.  This can lead to a serious and sometimes life-threatening infection.