Otitis Externa



Otitis externa is caused by infection, irritation, or damage to the ear canal.

Risk Factors

The acute type is more common in children. Risks for otitis externa are:

  • Getting water in the ear—especially from swimming or bathing
  • Sweating
  • Putting objects in the ear
  • Burns to the ear
  • Soap in the ear
  • Blockage in the ear canal from:
    • Impacted ear wax
    • Cysts
    • A defect, or too much ear hair
  • Having health conditions, such as:
    • Diabetes
    • Weak immune system
    • Skin problems—such as seborrheic dermatitis, eczema, or psoriasis
    • A middle ear infection—otitis media
    • Emotional stress



Otitis externa may cause:

  • Drainage from the ear
  • Redness or itching inside the ear canal
  • Pain in the ear
  • Hearing loss or a plugged-up feeling in the ear


The doctor will ask about symptoms and past health. A physical exam may be done. The doctor will look in the ear with a lighted device. An ear swab may be done to check for infection.

If the doctor suspects malignant otitis externa, scans may be done, such as CT scan, MRI and bone scans. Other tests may also be done.



The goal of treatment is to ease symptoms and clear any infection.

The doctor may advise keeping the ear dry and avoiding water sports for a week or so. Other options may be:


The doctor may advise:

  • Pain medicines
  • Antibiotic ear drops—to treat infection
  • Antifungal medicines by mouth— to treat fungal infections
  • Antibiotics by mouth or IV—for severe infections
  • Corticosteroid ear drops to reduce inflammation

If the ear canal is very swollen, a small sponge may be inserted in it. It will absorb the drops. It is usually removed after 24 to 48 hours.

If treatments do not work, drainage may be removed from the ear canal. This is rarely needed.


Malignant otitis externa needs hospital care right away. Surgery may be needed if:

  • The infection spreads to the base of the skull
  • There is a bone abscess
  • Other treatments do not work

Dead tissue may also need to be removed.


The risk of otitis externa may be lowered by:

  • Keeping water and objects out of the ear, if possible
  • Using acetic acid ear drops
  • Draining and drying ears after swimming or showering
  • Having the doctor look for and remove impacted ear wax

This content is reviewed regularly and is updated when new and relevant evidence is made available. This information is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with questions regarding a medical condition.

Edits to original content made by Denver Health.