Otitis Externa Treatment: How to Deal With Painful Ears

Medically reviewed by Diana Rose G. Tolentino, MD, MBA · Ear Nose and Throat · HMICare Clinic & Diagnostic Center

Written by Tracey Romero · Updated Jun 22, 2021

    Otitis Externa Treatment: How to Deal With Painful Ears

    Are you experiencing itchiness, pain, and swelling in your ear? Then there may be a chance that you have otitis externa. Here are some quick facts about the condition, as well as otitis externa treatment to help you learn more about the condition.

    What Is Otitis Externa?

    Otitis externa is a condition that makes your external ear canal get red and swollen. The external ear canal is a tube that connects your external ear to the middle ear.

    Otitis externa is often called swimmer’s ear. That is because repeated water exposure can make your ear canal more susceptible to inflammation. Typically only one ear gets affected, but a person can get otitis externa in both ears.

    Learn more about the types of this condition, as well as otitis externa treatment and prevention.

    What Are the Types of Otitis Externa?

    There are two types of otitis externa, which are acute and chronic otitis externa. Here is a quick summary of both types to help you understand the differences.

    Acute Otitis Externa

    Acute otitis externa often lasts less than six weeks. This often comes from a bacterial infection.

    Chronic Otitis Externa

    Chronic otitis externa often lasts for more than three months. It is often caused by autoimmune disorders and allergies.

    What Causes Otitis Externa?

    Different things can cause either acute or chronic otitis externa. There are also cases where otitis externa is caused by more than a single factor. Here is a quick look at what can cause each type of otitis externa:

    Acute Otitis Externa Causes

    • Minor trauma due to cleaning your ear (ex. using a cotton swab)
    • Skin problems like dermatitis and psoriasis
    • Using earplugs and hearing aids
    • Excess moisture in the ear from swimming, heavy perspiration, etc.

    Chronic Otitis Externa Causes

    • Autoimmune disorders
    • Allergies
    • Damage to ear, such as frequent scratching
    • Chronic drainage from a middle ear disease
    • Chronic irritation from things like frequent use of cotton swabs and hearing aids
    • Fungus
    • Bacterial infection
    • Chronic skin disorders
    • Diabetes

    What Are the Symptoms of Otitis Externa?

    The symptoms of otitis externa can range from mild to severe. The following symptoms of each stage include:

    Mild symptoms:

    • Drainage of odorless and clear fluid
    • Mild discomfort, especially when pushing on the small bump in the front of the ear
    • Slight redness in the ear
    • Itching in the ear canal

    Moderate symptoms:

    • Muffled/decreased hearing
    • Partial blockage of the ear canal and a feeling of fullness in the ear from debris, fluid, and swelling
    • Increasing pain
    • Excessive fluid drainage
    • Extensive redness in the ear
    • More intense itching

    Advanced symptoms:

    • Fever
    • Swelling on your neck’s lymph nodes
    • Swelling or redness in the outer ear
    • Total blockage in the ear canal
    • Extreme pain in the affected ear may also be felt in the side of the head, neck, and face.

    What Are the Risks of Otitis Externa?

    While most cases of otitis externa do not have complications, especially when treated properly, some issues may arise. For instance, the bacteria could spread to other body parts or deeper into your skin.

    There is also a risk that you could develop malignant otitis externa, which is a life-threatening infection that may require immediate medical attention. People with autoimmune disorders, diabetes, and who are older may have a higher risk of getting malignant otitis externa.

    How Do You Prevent Getting Otitis Externa?

    Simple habits can help reduce your risk of developing otitis externa. For instance, you can avoid inserting your fingers, cotton wool buds, etc. into your ears to decrease your chances of damaging your ear canal’s sensitive skin.

    Whenever you bathe or shower, you can try to avoid getting shampoo, soap, and water into your ears. You may also wear earplugs or a swimming cap when you swim to protect your ears.

    Otitis Externa Treatment

    Most otitis exeterna treatment will involve addressing the infection and letting your ear canal heal.

    Otitis Externa Treatment: Clearing the Ear

    Your doctor might use an ear curette or suction device to clean your ear canal of debris so any given ear drops can reach the infected areas.

    Otitis Externa Treatment: Eardrops

    Doctors may prescribe eardrops that may contain a mixture of antifungal medication, antibiotics, steroids, and an acidic solution. However, this may depend on the severity and type of otitis externa you have.

    You may also ask your doctor what the most comfortable way of putting the ear drops into your ear is. For instance, if the cool drops bother you, your doctor may suggest using your hand to hold and warm up the bottle for several minutes before using it.

    Otitis Externa Treatment: Drainage

    A doctor may have to insert a wick made from gauze of cotton to draw the medication into the ear canal and promote drainage if your ear canal gets fully blocked from excess discharge, inflammation, or swelling.

    Otitis Externa Treatment: Antibiotics

    You may be given oral antibiotics if you do not respond to ear drops or have more advanced symptoms. You may also be given pain relief if needed.

    When Should I See a Doctor?

    If you are experiencing mild symptoms of otitis externa, it would be best to speak to your doctor. They can give you prompt treatment to address the condition before it worsens.

    If you have any of the advanced symptoms, especially fever, or severe pain, it would be best to seek immediate medical attention. It could be a sign that you have malignant otitis externa, which could be fatal if it is not treated.

    Key Takeaway

    Otitis externa is a common condition that can be easily treated when promptly treated in most cases. Learning more about the causes and symptoms of the condition, as well as otitis externa treatment, can help you learn how to properly address and prevent getting it.

    Learn more about Ear Conditions here.


    Hello Health Group does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.

    Medically reviewed by

    Diana Rose G. Tolentino, MD, MBA

    Ear Nose and Throat · HMICare Clinic & Diagnostic Center

    Written by Tracey Romero · Updated Jun 22, 2021


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