About 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 is infected.

Children who swim a lot often get external ear infections. This is because water stays in their ears after swimming and causes 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 like 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), 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.

Severe external ear infections can cause the whole ear to become red and swollen. The redness can spread onto your child’s face and neck.

Does your child need to see a doctor about an 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 GP might prescribe ear drops for your child. These usually have a combination of corticosteroids 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 GP 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 corticosteroids.

While your child has an external ear infection, you and your child should avoid touching or scratching her ear. Your child’s ear also needs to 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. You could try using a hair dryer instead of cotton buds to dry your child’s ears.