This painful ear condition, also called acute otitis externa, is an infection involving the ear canal and external ear. A common cause of this can be trapped water in the ear canal. This creates an environment where the bacteria that normally inhabit the ear canal multiply and cause infection. It can also be caused by minor trauma to the ear canal, excess ear wax or allergic reactions.
These infections often start with an itching or burning sensation and then progress to worsening ear pain, drainage from the ear and hearing loss. With appropriate treatment, most patients make a full recovery.
While some mild cases may resolve on their own, many of these infections should be treated. The most common treatments are antibiotic ear drops and simple ear cleaning. More severe infections may require oral antibiotics. Untreated infections can spread to adjacent tissue, and in certain at-risk patients, such as those with diabetes, the infection can spread into the skull.
Fortunately, there are some simple measures to help reduce your risk of infection. After swimming, using a dry towel, hair drier, or even a boat ride can help dry the ear. For people who have trouble getting water out of their ears, you can make your own eardrops out of 50:50 mixture of rubbing alcohol and vinegar. These drops can be used to help evaporate excess water from the ear canal. These should only be used if there is no possibility of having a hole or tube in the ear drum. Finally, ear plugs can be used to keep water out.
Dr. Voorman is a board-certified ear, nose and throat specialist practicing at Newton Medical Center.