Causes of external ear infection or otitis externa

If your child has an external ear infection, the lining of her ear canal on the outer side of her eardrum will be infected.
Children who swim a lot often get external ear infections because water can stay in their ears after swimming and cause irritation.

External ear infections might also happen if your child’s ear canal is damaged by using cotton buds or scratching. A secondary bacterial or fungal infection often develops when this happens.

Children who have skin problems such as eczema or dermatitis are more likely to get external ear infections.

The medical term for external ear infection is otitis externa. You might also hear it called ‘swimmer’s ear’.

The ear has three main parts – the outer ear (the ear canal and ear lobe), the middle ear (behind the eardrum, and linked to the throat via a small tube called the Eustachian tube), and the inner ear (which has the nerves that help to detect sound).

Symptoms of external ear infection

If your child has an external ear infection, he 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. Chewing can sometimes make the pain worse.

Sometimes there can be bleeding or even discharge from the infected ear. Your child might also have painful, swollen lymph glands around her ear and neck.

When to see a doctor about external ear infection

You should take your child to your GP 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 external ear infections
  • you think your child is having trouble hearing.

Treatment for external ear infection

For mild external ear infections, your doctor might prescribe ear drops for your child. These usually have a combination of steroids and antibiotics in them. Your child should use these for several days before you get his ear checked again.

For more severe external ear infections, 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.

While your child has an external ear infection, avoid touching her ear. Your child’s ear should also be kept dry, which means she shouldn’t swim until her ear is completely healed.

You can use paracetamol in recommended doses if your child is in pain.

Prevention of external ear infection

If your child keeps getting external ear infections, it might help to put drops in his ear after swimming and bathing. Wearing good-quality earplugs can also help prevent this condition.

It’s also a good idea to avoid cleaning your child’s ear with cotton buds.

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