Raleigh, NC 27609
Monday - Friday
8:30am to 5:00pm
Otitis externa ("swimmer's ear") is an inflammation of the outer ear and ear canal. Along with otitis media, external otitis is one of the two human conditions commonly called "earache". It also occurs in many other species. Inflammation of the skin of the ear canal is the essence of this disorder. The inflammation can be secondary to dermatitis (eczema) only, with no microbial infection, or it can be caused by active bacterial or fungal infection. In either case, but more often with infection, the ear canal skin swells and may become painful and/or tender to touch.
Chronic otitis externa is a low-grade disease, usually non-microbial and purely on the basis of chronic dermatitis or irritation from "cleaning" the canal, often with cotton swabs. It can be thought of as chronic dermatitis of the ear canal skin and may or may not be painful. There may only be seepage, mild swelling, or itching.
In contrast to the chronic otitis externa, acute otitis externa is predominantly a microbial infection, occurs rather suddenly, rapidly worsens, and becomes very painful and alarming. The ear canal has an abundant nerve supply, so the pain is often severe enough to interfere with sleep. Wax in the ear can combine with the swelling of the canal skin and any associated pus to block the canal and dampen hearing to varying degrees, creating a temporary conductive hearing loss. In more severe or untreated cases, the infection can spread to the soft tissues of the face that surround the adjacent parotid gland and the jaw joint, making chewing painful. In its mildest forms, external otitis is so common that some ear nose and throat physicians have suggested that most people will have at least a brief episode at some point in life. While a small percentage of people seem to have an innate tendency toward chronic external otitis, most people can avoid external otitis altogether once they understand the mechanisms of the disease.