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Ear infection, outer ear - What is an outer ear infection?

BMJ Group Medical Reference


An outer ear infection can be quite painful. It can happen in adults or children. You're most likely to get an outer ear infection if you go swimming a lot. It's sometimes called 'swimmer's ear'. Most outer ear infections clear up in 10 days with treatment. There are things you can do to reduce your chances of getting another infection.

We've brought together the best research about outer ear infections and weighed up the evidence about how to treat it. You can use our information to talk to your doctor and decide which treatments are best for you.

If your ear hurts and feels 'full' or itchy, you might have an outer ear infection. This means that the skin of your outer ear canal (the tube that leads from the bit of the ear you can see, down to your eardrum) has become inflamed and swollen.

otitis-externa-ear_default.jpgDoctors call outer ear infection otitis externa.

Most outer ear infections are caused by bacteria. But this type of ear infection can also be caused by a fungus.

Sometimes the ear gets inflamed without any infection, especially if you've got a skin condition such as eczema.

Some of the reasons why your outer ear can get infected are:[1]

  • Water enters your ear canal (for example, when you go swimming)

  • The ear canal gets damp (for example, if the weather is hot and humid or if you sweat a lot)

  • The skin of the ear canal gets damaged (for example, if you put a finger or cotton bud inside your ear or you wear a hearing aid)

  • You've got eczema or some other skin problem in your ear.

Most people get an acute infection. This means the symptoms come on quickly and can be treated quickly too. In some people, the infection becomes chronic. This means the pain goes away but the inflammation lasts for weeks or months.

A chronic ear infection can make it difficult for you to hear properly.[2]

Young children often get earache from an infection of the middle ear. Doctors call this otitis media. Middle ear infection is treated differently from outer ear infection. To read more, see Ear infection.

Last Updated: June 20, 2012
This information does not replace medical advice.  If you are concerned you might have a medical problem please ask your Boots pharmacy team in your local Boots store, or see your doctor.
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