Vincent Cumberworth BSc FRCS Consultant Ear, Nose and Throat Surgeon
Clementine Churchill Hospital Sudbury Hill Harrow Middlesex HA1 3RX
Private Secretary: Tel: 020 8872 3866 Fax: 0208872 3861

Information is supplied only upon the condition that the viewer will make their own determination as to the suitability of the information for its purposes prior to use.  There will be no responsibility for information that is misused or misinterpreted and the information should not be used as a substitute for consultation with a health care professional.  It is not possible to answer questions regarding individual cases or to enter into individual correspondence.

Otitis Externa

Otitis externa is a common condition which involves inflammation of the skin of the ear canal or even sometimes the pinna.  Predisposing factors include any skin condition such as eczema or psoriasis and it may be triggered by a bacterial infection.

Itching, which can be very severe, is one of the most troublesome symptoms and this gives rise to a tendency to put objects such as a Q tip in the ear to try to clean it; this usually makes the condition significantly worse!  The cotton wool is quite abrasive and can create very small breaks in the skin, through which bacteria can enter and so worsen the inflammation.

The pain actually can be very severe as the tissue is in a non-expansile bony canal.

Discharge is common and may have an unpleasant smell.

Hearing may be impaired because of the amount of debris blocking the ear canal lying on the drum.

Treatment relies on clearance of debris, which is likely to require microsuction of the ear after full review by an ENT Specialist.  Topical antibiotics, often combined with a mild steroid, can be necessary to settle the infection and occasionally fungal infection may be present which requires a slightly different management.

In the case of severe infection involving the skin of the face and ear hospital admission may be required  for intravenous antibiotics.

General Advice

Try to keep the ears dry, if possible, and the use of earplugs, or cotton wool covered with Vaseline, for showering, bathing or swimming may be useful.  It is advisable to check with your specialist that it is permissible for you to swim, depending on your ears.

Avoid any self-instrumentation with cotton buds or hairgrip etc., which is likely to exacerbate the problem.

Do not scratch the ear; this may spread infection.

Olive oil may help if there is regular wax accumulation but longer-term use of commercial anti-wax preparations can sometimes cause irritant problems.

If there is an underlying tympanic perforation (hole in the drum) then syringing is inadvisable and review by an ENT Specialist is advisable; microsuction can then be performed, if necessary, to provide a safe and comprehensive clearance of the external ear canal.