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Ear problems

Outer ear infection (otitis externa)

Otitis externa is the medical name for inflammation (redness and swelling) and infection of the outer ear canal.


The symptoms of otitis externa can include:

  • ear pain
  • liquid discharge
  • temporary hearing loss.


Otitis externa can be caused by:

  • bacterial or fungal infections
  • skin conditions such as eczema or psoriasis (broken skin is more likely to become inflamed)
  • allergies – for example, antibiotic ear drops or hair products may irritate your ear canal.

You’re more at risk of developing this outer ear infection if you:

  • damage your ear canal – for example, by using cotton buds, scratching or putting other objects in your ear
  • have too much moisture in your ear due to swimming (particularly in dirty water), sweating or being in a humid environment.


See a GP if you think you have otitis externa. It can last for several weeks and cause discomfort if it isn’t treated.

Most often, the GP can prescribe medicated ear drops to help speed up the healing process. If necessary, they may prescribe stronger painkillers, or antibiotics to treat a severe infection.

To prevent complications and your symptoms get worse, try to avoid getting your affected ear wet. You can buy earplugs specially designed for swimming and bathing to help prevent water getting into your ears.

You can remove any discharge from your affected ear by gently swabbing your outer ear with cotton wool, but be careful not to damage it, and don’t put anything inside your ear, such as a cotton bud.

With treatment, otitis externa should clear up within two to three days. If it doesn’t, go back to your GP.

Find out more about ear infections on the NHS website.