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What is External Otitis?

D. Jeffress
D. Jeffress

External otitis is the medical term for an outer ear and ear canal infection. A bacterial or fungal pathogen can cause the ear to become itchy, red, and painful, and pus might ooze from the canal. The condition is usually acute, meaning that symptoms come on suddenly but go away within about two weeks with treatment. Chronic external otitis is a more serious disorder that can last for several weeks or months. An individual who believes that he or she may have an ear infection should schedule an appointment with a physician as soon as possible to prevent further complications.

The ear is a relatively sensitive body part that can become infected for several possible reasons. Trauma to the ear canal that occurs when trying to clean it or scratch an itch can rupture the skin and create the opportunity for infection. External otitis can also result from water getting trapped in the ear canal and wearing away its protective wax coating. In fact, the condition is commonly called swimmer's ear because people who spend a lot of time in the water are at a very high risk of developing this type of infection.


An individual who has acute external otitis is likely to experience pain and itching sensations that become worse over the course of two to three days after infection. As the condition persists, the canal may produce a foul-smelling yellow discharge that drains out of the ear. A person's hearing may become muffled if water is still trapped in the cavity or irritation and swelling become severe. Chronic external otitis usually results in similar symptoms, and hearing loss and draining often become more severe over time.

A doctor can usually diagnose external otitis by asking about symptoms and performing a thorough physical examination. The physician can peer into the ear canal to check for possible middle- and inner-ear damage and collect a sample of pus to check for specific pathogens. He or she usually cleans the ear with a cotton swab and removes excess pus with a suction device.

After identifying the fungus or bacterium responsible for infection, the doctor can prescribe the appropriate type of medication. Antibacterial and antifungal ear drops are commonly given to patients, who are instructed to use them for about two weeks or until symptoms go away. In addition, a doctor may prescribe anti-inflammatory drugs or corticosteroids to reduce severe pain and swelling. A swimmer may be instructed to avoid water for several weeks to allow the ear time to fully heal.

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