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Otitis externa is an infection of the lining of the ear canal, on the outer side of the eardrum.

Causes

Otitis externa is caused by an inflammation of the skin that lines the ear canal. It’s more common in children who swim a lot because water can stay in the ear after swimming and cause irritation. Otitis externa might also be triggered by damage to the ear canal after using cotton buds or scratching. A secondary bacterial or fungal infection often develops when this happens.

Otitis externa is also known as ‘swimmer’s ear’.

Symptoms

If your child has otitis externa, she might complain of a painful or itchy ear. Younger children might spend a lot of time scratching their ears.

The ear usually feels blocked, and your child might have trouble hearing.

Sometimes there’ll be bleeding or even discharge.

When to see your doctor

You should see your doctor if:

  • your child complains of an earache
  • there’s discharge from your child’s ear
  • your child is generally unwell, has a fever or is vomiting
  • your child keeps getting otitis externa.

Treatment

For mild cases of otitis externa, your doctor might prescribe ear drops for your child. These usually have a combination of steroids and antibiotics in them. They should be used for several days before you get your child’s ear checked again.

For more severe cases of otitis externa, your doctor might insert a small length of gauze, called a wick, into your child’s ear. The wick is soaked in a solution of antibiotics and steroids. You can use paracetamol in recommended doses if your child is in pain.

Try to avoid touching the ear. The ear should also be kept dry, which means your child shouldn’t swim until the ear is completely healed. 

Prevention

If your child keeps getting otitis externa, it might be helpful to put drops in his ear after swimming and bathing. Wearing good-quality earplugs can also help prevent this condition. Also, avoid cleaning your child’s ear with cotton buds.

Your doctor will be able to give you more information about prevention.

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  • Last Updated 28-06-2011
  • Last Reviewed 13-05-2011
  • Berkowitz, R., & Marks, M. (2009). Ear, nose and throat conditions. In K. Thomson, D. Tey & M. Marks (Eds), Paediatric handbook (8th edn, pp. 287-297). Melbourne: Wiley-Blackwell.

    Haddad Jr, J. (2007). External otitis. In R. Kliegman, R. Behrman, H. Jenson & B. Stanton (Eds), Nelson textbook of pediatrics (18th edn, pp. 2629-2631). Philadelphia: Saunders Elsevier.

    Yoon, P.J., Kelley, P.E., & Friedman, N.R. (2009). Ear, nose and throat. In W. Hay, M. Levin, J. Sondheimer & R. Deterding (Eds), Current diagnosis and treatment: Pediatrics (20th edn, pp. 452-486). New York: McGraw-Hill.

    Royal Children’s Hospital (2010). Ear Infections and Otitis Media. Retrieved January 12, 2011, from http://www.rch.org.au/kidsinfo/factsheets.cfm?doc_id=3720

    Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research (2010). Swimmer’s ear. Retrieved January 12, 2011, from http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/swimmers-ear/DS00473.

    Kaushik, V., Malik, T., & Saeed, S.R. (2010). Interventions for acute otitis externa. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, 1, CD004740.

    Osguthorpe, J.D. & Nielsen, D.R. (2006). Otitis externa: Review and clinical update. American Family Physician, 74(9), 1510-6.

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