Otitis Externa

ExitCare ImageOtitis externa is a bacterial or fungal infection of the outer ear canal. This is the area from the eardrum to the outside of the ear. Otitis externa is sometimes called "swimmer's ear."


Possible causes of infection include:

  • Swimming in dirty water.

  • Moisture remaining in the ear after swimming or bathing.

  • Mild injury (trauma) to the ear.

  • Objects stuck in the ear (foreign body).

  • Cuts or scrapes (abrasions) on the outside of the ear.


The first symptom of infection is often itching in the ear canal. Later signs and symptoms may include swelling and redness of the ear canal, ear pain, and yellowish-white fluid (pus) coming from the ear. The ear pain may be worse when pulling on the earlobe.


Your caregiver will perform a physical exam. A sample of fluid may be taken from the ear and examined for bacteria or fungi.


Antibiotic ear drops are often given for 10 to 14 days. Treatment may also include pain medicine or corticosteroids to reduce itching and swelling.


  • Keep your ear dry. Use the corner of a towel to absorb water out of the ear canal after swimming or bathing.

  • Avoid scratching or putting objects inside your ear. This can damage the ear canal or remove the protective wax that lines the canal. This makes it easier for bacteria and fungi to grow.

  • Avoid swimming in lakes, polluted water, or poorly chlorinated pools.

  • You may use ear drops made of rubbing alcohol and vinegar after swimming. Combine equal parts of white vinegar and alcohol in a bottle. Put 3 or 4 drops into each ear after swimming.


  • Apply antibiotic ear drops to the ear canal as prescribed by your caregiver.

  • Only take over-the-counter or prescription medicines for pain, discomfort, or fever as directed by your caregiver.

  • If you have diabetes, follow any additional treatment instructions from your caregiver.

  • Keep all follow-up appointments as directed by your caregiver.


  • You have a fever.

  • Your ear is still red, swollen, painful, or draining pus after 3 days.

  • Your redness, swelling, or pain gets worse.

  • You have a severe headache.

  • You have redness, swelling, pain, or tenderness in the area behind your ear.


  • Understand these instructions.

  • Will watch your condition.

  • Will get help right away if you are not doing well or get worse.