Understanding Otitis Externa Symptoms

Understanding Otitis Externa Symptoms 5.00/5 (100.00%) 4 votes

What is happening inside my child’s body? The ear has a long canal leading to the eardrum, and behind the drum are the bones that help conduct sound. The term “ear infec­tion” usually refers to an infection in the area behind the drum. This is called otitis media. However, the canal itself also can become inflamed or infected. This is called otitis externa (or swimmer’s ear).

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There are two main causes of otitis externa: mechanical injury and humidity. Mechanical injury can be inflicted with fingernails, Q-Tips, or anything that scrapes the inside of the canal (such as small toys). Scratches allow bacteria that normally live on top of the skin to get underneath it, causing infection and inflammation.

In fact, this is why our ears make wax. Wax lines the ear canal, preventing it from losing its/top protective layer. In most cases, wax minimizes the chances that bacteria will enter through tiny breaks in the skin. However, too much wax can do just the opposite. Large amounts of wax can trap bacteria, increasing the number of bacteria living in the canal. This in turn can cause otitis externa.


The other cause of otitis externa is moisture. This is where the infection gets the name “swimmer’s ear.” Moisture causes otitis externa by eroding the protective layer lining the ear canal, which in turn makes the skin more susceptible to inflammation. Inflam­mation causes microscopic breaks in the skin, providing entry points for bacteria.

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It is important to note that although water entering the ear (during a bath or shower, for instance) can cause otitis externa, it cannot cause otitis media. And otitis externa caused by bathing is extremely rare. Think about how many baths and showers you have taken over a lifetime.

Did you get repeated (or any) otitis externa infections from these? The point here is that parents often worry that they will cause ear infections during routine bathing. In this situation, otitis externa is theoretically possible, but it is very unlikely.


Regardless of the mechanism, when bacteria get under the skin in the ear canal, they multiply, causing swelling, itching, or ten­derness. In some cases, the canal may smell bad or produce a yel­low or white discharge. It often hurts to touch or pull on any part of the ear, or even to move it as when chewing. Otitis externa also may cause temporary difficulty with hearing.