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Inflammation of the ear canal (otitis externa)

Otitis Externa Background image

Causes, symptoms, and therapy

An inflammation of the ear canal (also otitis externa) is defined as a bacterial, fungal, or allergic inflammation of the skin and subcutis in the outer ear canal. In some cases, an inflammation of the ear canal can also involve the outer ear or the tympanic membrane (eardrum). The latter is known as myringitis. It is a medical health issue and should be dealt with in the correct manner to ensure there is no further damage.

Causes of an ear canal inflammation

A trigger for an inflammation of the ear canal (otitis externa) is microtrauma. This term describes minor injuries to the skin, caused by, for instance, rigorous cleaning of the ear using a cotton swab, damaging the dermis of the ear canal.

Another factor for the inflammation of the ear canal can be skin sensitization (an allergic reaction) as caused by certain shampoos and other artificial agents like hairsprays and soaps. Additionally, increased ossification (exostoses of the ear canal) or a chronic middle ear infection can be at the root of the condition. Diseases resulting in immunodeficiency – for example, neurodermatitis, psoriasis, and diabetes mellitus – can, by way of a general skin inflammation (dermatitis), also lead to an inflammation of the ear canal.

One other thing that can cause this medical condition could be not looking after your ears and hearing aids properly. Hearing aids wearers need to be aware that by wearing a hearing device they are closing up the ear, making it easier for infections to spread. Therefore, it is important to regularly clean your ear of any wax and moisture. But, also clean your hearing devices regularly to ensure any bacteria is cleaned off. When you are fitted with hearing aids, the audiologist should go over the cleaning procedure and you should follow that procedure every week to prevent potential infections.

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Symptoms of otitis externa

An inflammation of the ear canal at first may feel like a sensation of itching, followed by extreme earache, especially when chewing or tucking at the outer ear. Likewise, the transmission of sound in the ear can be impaired, causing a perception of sounds that is muffled and unclear. Frequently, otitis externa is accompanied with swelling or obstruction of the ear canal due to an accumulation of mucus. For this form of ear canal inflammation, the distinction can be made between the oozing type (secretion) and the dry variant (skin flakes). In rare cases, the adjacent bone tissue can be affected as well, which can lead to a breakdown of the surrounding cranial nerves at the base of the skull.

How is an ear canal inflammation diagnosed?

Generally, the first step is an examination of the ear canal to determine if there is an obvious abscess or boil present. Moreover, by pulling back the outer ear, the presence of pain should be assessed. In any case, an ENT-specialist should be consulted for a diagnosis. If necessary, a cleaning of the ear canal (ear microscopy), a smear, and/or hearing test should be performed.

Just book an appointment with an audiologist or an ENT (ear, nose and throat) specialist and they can do the necessary tests. They will also be able to provide you with the next possible steps and how to ensure that the inflammation goes away completely.

Therapy for an inflammation of the ear canal

The intended treatment outcome of an inflammation of the ear canal is the decline in swelling and the restoration of impaired hearing – respectively, the reduction of sustained hearing impairment. Initially, the ear canal should be cleaned. In the case of a conclusive result, the hearing impairment should be treated with medicated salves or creams. In severe cases, it might be necessary to prescribe a round of antibiotics. Most of the time, however, otitis externa is treated conservatively and, in certain cases, surgically.

Can I wear hearing aids?

Many people find that when suffering from this medical condition they can’t wear hearing aids. This is because putting in an external object in the ear can cause infections and can be a painful experience for the wearer. People are advised to get a suitable treatment for their case and wait a few weeks before wearing a hearing device. This means that they are unable to hear properly until the treatment is done. However, in the long-term it proves to be advantageous as the wearer doesn’t have to suffer from extra pain or infections.

Dr. Emily Smith

Dr. Emily Smith is a lead audiologist at, a global leader in hearing care and the largest online retailer of medical-grade hearing aids. Dr. Smith graduated from the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center and has performed hundreds of Teleaudiology appointments to help people find greater access to hearing healthcare. Outside of audiology, Dr. Smith enjoys spending time hiking, skiing, and traveling with her friends and family, and has two dogs, Baxter and Piper.

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