An inflammation of the ear canal, or otitis externa, is usually associated with severe ear pain. It can sometimes be quite lengthy, but complications rarely occur. If attention is paid to proper treatment, the disease heals without any consequential damage. If the ear canal inflammation develops while swimming, bathing or diving, it is also called bath otitis.
What is ear canal inflammation?
Inflammation of the ear canal (otitis externa) is a very common disease that is an inflammatory reaction of the skin of the external ear canal. This extremely painful inflammation is not only triggered by bacteria, but also by fungi and allergies.
The eardrum is often involved as part of the disease. A typical symptom of the onset of an ear canal inflammation is itching; later on, drawing or burning pains set in. These increase – due to the proximity of the jaw to the external auditory canal – when chewing. Pulling on the auricle or pressure on the cartilage known as the tragus inside the auricle also worsens the symptoms.
Sudden hearing loss, secretion, swelling of the lymph nodes in the throat and fever are other symptoms of ear canal inflammation.
The causes of ear canal inflammation are manifold. For example, the smallest injuries to the skin of the ear canal, which occur quickly during cleaning, can cause inflammation. The reason for this is the fact that the skin damage facilitates the penetration of bacteria or even makes it possible in the first place.
Excessive cleaning of the ear with ear swabs or soapy water also has a positive effect on the development of ear canal inflammation, since here the protective wax is consistently removed and therefore cannot fulfill its function. The risk of infection is particularly high if an unclean finger is used for cleaning instead of a cotton swab.
The inflammation can also be triggered by an otitis media that has persisted for a long time, a herpes zoster infection or an intolerance to certain substances. A visit to a swimming pool can also lead to ear canal inflammation. This is to be expected at least if the water that has penetrated the ear canal cannot completely drain away.
Symptoms, ailments & signs
An inflammation of the ear canal usually heals completely. In rare cases, however, it can turn into chronic inflammation or lead to serious complications. Typical symptoms of most forms of ear canal inflammation are severe itching in the ear, burning pain in the ear canal, swollen ears and discharge of secretion from the affected ear.
The burning pain in the ear is aggravated by pulling on the earlobe, pressure on the auricle or when chewing. The swollen ear canal is also red and scaly. At the same time, the hearing ability on the swollen ear is reduced. Often the secretion flowing out of the ear forms crusts. If the disease spreads further, you may experience a fever, lymph node swelling, and feeling very sick.
In immunocompromised individuals even fatal courses are possible. Some ear canal infections are limited to small areas in the ear. This applies, among other things, to otitis externa circumscripta, where a hair follicle is inflamed in the form of a boil. The entire ear canal is affected in otitis externa diffusa.
A particularly malignant form of ear canal inflammation is otitis externa necroticans. Inflamed tissue dies here, and the inflammation can also affect the skull bones and cranial nerves. Flu can also lead to so-called otitis externa bullosa haemorrhagica with the formation of bloody blisters in the ear canal, on the eardrum and in the middle ear.
Diagnosis & course
The diagnosis of ear canal inflammation by the doctor is carried out as part of a physical examination. This is usually divided into a tactile examination and an optical assessment of the ear canal. The doctor first checks whether the pain increases when the auricle is pulled or pressure is exerted on the tragus.
If this is the case, this can already be interpreted as a clear sign of the presence of an inflammation of the ear canal. In order to confirm the diagnosis, the doctor will usually still carry out an otoscope. In this way, redness, swelling or a coating of the ear canal can easily be detected. A hearing or balance test is usually only carried out if the patient complains of hearing loss.
In individual cases, X-rays, a smear, an examination of the blood count or a special allergy test can be ordered.
Although the ear canal inflammation proves to be painful and the healing process can take a long time, it is comparatively harmless: complications occur very rarely, and consequential damage is not to be expected.
An inflammation of the ear canal is a very unpleasant matter for the person concerned. There is a stinging sensation in the ear that lasts for a long time. Anyone who suffers from such an inflammation should not put off a visit to the doctor.
Only with the help of early treatment and the right medication can serious complications be avoided. Anyone who leaves an inflammation inside the ear without any treatment must expect increasing pain. In addition, there may be strong pus formation, which occurs especially in the morning hours.
However, if you decide on treatment early enough in such a case, you are making a very good decision. A doctor can prescribe medication that is effective in controlling such inflammation. Anyone who refrains from medical treatment must expect a considerable worsening of the individual symptoms. For this reason, appropriate treatment is of great importance.
When should you go to the doctor?
An inflammation of the ear canal is noticeable as a sharp earache. If the pain is bearable, a doctor does not need to be consulted immediately. In many cases, a significant improvement can be heard after a few days, provided that strict bed rest is observed. In some cases, however, complications can be expected, so that medical treatment is inevitable.
If the formation of pus can be seen, the visit to the doctor must no longer be postponed. Then there is a severe inflammation in the ear canal, which should be treated with medication as soon as possible. If such treatment is not used at this point, the existing symptoms can be expected to worsen significantly. The production of pus increases and the pain also increases.
Viruses and bacteria can also spread throughout the body, causing general malaise. Thus, the following applies: An inflammation of the ear canal should be treated by a doctor at the latest when pus first appears. In this way, the inflammation can be combated quickly and effectively.
Treatment & Therapy
The therapy of an inflammation of the ear canal essentially consists of an outpatient treatment, which relies on the application of locally acting measures. The therapy often begins with a meticulous cleaning of the ear canal by the doctor. The administration of medication depends on the cause of the disease.
Swelling can be combated very well with ointments containing cortisone; an antibiotic is also prescribed in the event of a bacterial infection. However, this does not work against fungal infections, here the prescription of an antifungal agent is appropriate. A quick improvement of the symptoms can only be ensured if the patient behaves accordingly carefully.
For example, he should take care to keep the ear canal dry after showering or bathing. This can be easily achieved with the help of a hair dryer. If the pain is difficult to bear, targeted pain medication can be administered. Cooling the ear is also often perceived as pleasant in the case of an inflammation of the ear canal.
Outlook & forecast
With good and timely medical care, the prognosis of ear canal inflammation is favorable. The administration of medication prevents the pathogens from spreading further. The inflammation will gradually heal and the symptoms will subside. The patient is usually symptom-free within a few weeks.
The more advanced the disease is at the start of treatment, the longer the healing process. There is also the risk of complications or permanent hearing impairment. Patients with a weakened immune system or other illnesses must expect a delay in regeneration. The body’s defense system needs stronger support, which slows down healing.
Without treatment, the risk of the disease spreading increases. The pathogens multiply and worsen the general health of the patient. In addition, it can lead to a chronic course of the disease. In these cases, the affected person is threatened with increasing pain and decreased hearing ability. In addition, disorders of the organ of equilibrium can occur. These lead to problems in locomotion and an increase in the general risk of accidents.
An early diagnosis and a quick start of therapy are therefore important for a good prognosis in the case of ear canal inflammation. If the disease recurs, the prospect of a cure is also good.
In order to avoid the occurrence of ear canal inflammation as effectively as possible, foreign bodies should not be allowed to enter the ear. This also includes cleaning with cotton swabs and other aids. Since the human ear has a self-cleaning function, wax removal is simply not necessary. Also important: keep the ear dry and avoid the use of allergy-causing substances.
Inflammation of the ear canals may require follow-up care, otherwise serious complications can occur. Inflammation in the ear canals is characterized by sharp pain and the formation of pus fluid. Of course, such an inflammation can occur in different degrees of severity, so that follow-up care does not always have to take place.
In the case of mild to moderate inflammation of the ear canals, this can be done without. After taking anti-inflammatory drugs, the complications and symptoms should subside. In this case, further visits to the doctor can be dispensed with. This is a different matter if there is severe inflammation in the ear canals.
In such a case, appropriate follow-up care should definitely be carried out. Even after the pain in the ear canal has subsided, further visits to the doctor should be made. In this way, a renewed flare-up of the inflammation that has already been overcome can be recognized and prevented. Further examinations can be discontinued after one to two weeks.
However, if further complications or pain occur, you should not wait to see a doctor. If there is regular and strict follow-up care, nothing stands in the way of a full and rapid recovery. The inflammation subsides within a few days, so the pain will also subside quickly.
You can do that yourself
An inflammation of the ear canal can be treated and alleviated by the person affected using various home remedies, if a visit to the doctor is not possible. However, the inflammation cannot be cured by the remedies, which is why a doctor’s visit should be carried out as soon as possible.
Self-treatment can be done with plain alcohol. This should have a concentration of at least 45 percent. It is then carefully dripped into the ear canal and is used to disinfect the ear canal. Onions can also be used for the treatment. They contain many valuable essential oils.
The onion is cut into small pieces and wrapped in a cloth. Then the person concerned puts the cloth with onions on the ear and lets it take effect. Instead of the onion, the affected person can also use a chamomile tea bag. This is brewed with boiling water, then drained and placed on the ear after cooling.
The juice of freshly squeezed garlic and olive oil can also be used as ear drops. The oil should be lukewarm and two drops are placed in the ear. The garlic relieves pain and is anti-inflammatory. A compress made of tea tree oil and warm water is also used to treat pain. For this purpose, twelve drops of tea tree oil are diluted in warm water, a cloth is soaked with this solution and placed on the ear.