Otitis externa (swimmers ear)

Otitis externa is a common condition affecting people of all ages in which there is infection or inflammation of the external ear and/or the ear canal. There are a number of possible causes:

  • it may be part of a more general skin problem, such as eczema or psoriasis;
  • bacterial or fungal infection;
  • prolonged exposure to water;
  • trauma from scratching or foreign objects in the ear;
  • swimming in polluted water;
  • attempting to clean the ear canal with cotton swabs or small objects, can irritate the skin. Remember the lining of the canal of the ear is lined with special cells that migrate to the outside, moving the wax out. You donít need to remove the wax with cotton buds, you are more likely to push the wax onto the ear drum
  • hair spray, hair dyes, shampoos, and other chemicals may irritate the skin of the ear canal;

Symptoms may include pain, itching, and discharge from the ear, hearing loss, buzzing in the ear.

There are a number of ways of avoiding otitis externa.

  • drying the ear thoroughly after getting your ears wet
  • avoiding swimming in polluted water,
  • protecting the ear canal with cotton soaked with vaseline while swimming or applying hair spray or hair dye.


The diagnosis is made by listening to your symptoms and examining your ear.
The ear canal will usually appear red and swollen. Touching the outer ear may increase pain. The skin of the ear canal may appear like eczema with scaly skin.


Ear drops or a spray containing antibiotics to fight infection and corticosteroids to reduce itching and inflammation usually help.
If ear drops are used, they should be applied abundantly (four or five drops at a time) since too much is harmless and very often they drip out of the ear. (Follow the instructions supplied with your medication).
If the ear canal is very swollen, a wick may be applied in the ear to allow the drops to travel to the end of the canal
Occasionally, oral medication in the form of antibiotics may be needed in more severe cases.
Pain relief will help the pain/discomfort. If the pain is severe ask the chemist for some strong painkillers.
Fungal infections may be treated with appropriate anti-fungal agents applied to the external ear.
Applying warmth to the ears may reduce pain.
Protect ears from further damage so avoid the triggers if possible. Avoid wax earplugs
Do not scratch the ears or insert cotton swabs or other objects in the ears.

Further information

This article published on
04 December 2005

Next review date 12/1/2013


First aid

Areaof the body

Eyes, ears, nose, throat

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