Ear canal infection is a painful condition that puts you in agony. The uncomfortable problem can also lead to temporary hearing loss. You must never ignore the condition as it can proceed to your inner ear and lead to permanent loss of hearing. The condition also referred to as outer ear infection or swimmer’s ear. Never get confused by the name as people can suffer from the infection without going for a swim. It mostly occurs when your ear canal stays wet for a long time. It provides a fertile ground for bacteria and other organisms to grow. So, it can lead to infection and subsequent pain.
It is more common among children compared to adults. You can hear children complaining about ear pain most times when they have a common cold. Young children are susceptible to infection as they have small ears. So, they cannot drain fluid like the adult earn. The immature immune system also increases the chance of outer ear infection. There are three types of ear infection. Each infection differs from the other. Therefore, you need to get more information on each type to detect the exact problem you or your child faces. Based on the type, you need to take action immediately to prevent any complication. Read ahead to gain comprehensive information about the problem and act accordingly to overcome it.
What Is Ear Canal Infection?
Before explaining about ear canal infection, you need to understand the anatomy of your ear. It will help you understand the problem better. Your ear is divided into three compartments, namely:
The Inner Ear
Your inner ear contains nerves essential to hear properly. It also has balance organs. You can suffer infection in the inner ear, which is known as labyrinthitis.
The Middle Ear
Your middle ear has bone linking the eardrum to the inner ear. The eardrum is responsible for separating the middle and outer ear. Infection affecting the inner ear is referred to as otitis media. The infection can trigger temporary hearing loss. But, if you ignore it, then you can suffer from permanent hearing loss.
The Outer Ear
The ear canal, the short tube that leads to the eardrum and the earlobe constitutes the outer ear. The infection affected the outer ear is also known as otitis externa. It is rarely serious. So, with proper care, you can alleviate the problem completely without any lasting effects.
The ear canal infection can affect your short-term (acute), which lasts for a few days. At times, it can become chronic. So, you have to suffer for three months or more. The problem is common among children of age seven to twelve. It also affects people who live in a warm as well as humid climates. People using devices to protect their hearing or swim frequently can also suffer from an outer ear infection.
Causes Of Ear Canal Infection
Your ear canal has a skin lining, which also covers the outer ear. It offers your ear protection against infections triggered by fungi or bacteria. When the skin barrier breaks, it becomes easy for the bacteria or fungi to invade your ear. The invasion results in the development of infection. Too much moisture in the ear canal can lead to the problem. Do you want to know the causes of ear canal infection? Then, read below.
Swimming Or Showering
Swimming or showering leads to water entering your ear canal. Too much moisture can alter the acidic environment of your ear canal. So, it allows bacteria or fungi to develop. The external invasion results in in-ear canal infection. The bacteria or fungi causing the infection are necessarily not present in the water you use to swim or shower. Your ear canal may have it already or you can pick it up in your everyday life. But, the presence of moisture (from water or other foreign liquid) offers an ideal breeding ground for them to flourish.
Use Of Cotton Swabs
When you use cotton ear swabs to clean the dirt from your ear canal. But, you inadvertently trap bacteria inside the ear canal. The skin of your ear canal slowly moves outside carrying the skin fragments away from your eardrum. The working is similar to a conveyor belt. By pushing the cotton inside your ear, you push back the skin fragments in your ear canal. So, it leads to the building of dead skin as well as ear wax. It results in bacterial accumulation and subsequent infection. Therefore, you must never insert anything too deep into your ear.
Scratching Your Ear Canal
Scratching your ear can break the skin covering your ear canal. So, it can lead to cracking of protective skin leading to infection.
Irritation To Ear Canal
When chemicals enter your ear canal, it can lead to irritation. So, it can cause the skin covering the ear canal to crack. It can lead to the invasion of harmful bacteria and fungi. Using hair spray is one of the common ways by which the chemical can enter your ear canal. You can accidentally spray it into your ear.
People suffering from different types of skin condition are more at risk of suffering from ear canal infection. The different skin conditions can lead to the cracking of the protective skin barrier. Therefore, your ear canal becomes more susceptible to infections. People with the following skin condition need to maintain caution as they can suffer from the pain and agony caused by swimmer’s ear:
- Seborrheic dermatitis (You can suffer from dandruff when you have the condition)
Symptoms Of Ear Canal Infection
When you suffer from an infection in your ear canal, you can feel terrible pain. It starts over a day or two and gradually increases in intensity. As you fail to seek treatment, it can worsen and trigger several other complications. You can feel intense pain when you chew something or touch/pull your ear. The following symptoms indicate the presence of ear canal infection:
You can experience pain in your ear or earache. But, you only suffer pain in one ear and not both.
The ear canal infection can trigger itching sensation. The buildup of wax, dead skin cells and the presence of bacteria can make your ear canal itchy.
The infection can cause the skin in your outer ear to turn red. You can also feel tenderness around the outer ear.
Ear Canal Swollen Shut
The infection can lead to swelling of the tissue present in the front and below your ear. So, the swollen tissue can shut your ear canal.
The infection can cause fluid or pus to drain from the ear canal. You can observe drainage fluid of different colors. The foul-smelling, clear, bloody, white or yellow pus can put you in distress. Depending on the type of infection, the pus varies in color. If you suffer from bacterial infection, then yellow pus with unpleasant smell drains out from the ear canal. While fungal infections can lead to oozing of greyish white color pus.
Crusting Of Fluid
The ear discharge tends to form a fluid crusting. You can observe it at the opening of your ear canal. It indicates the presence of infection.
As a result of infection, the earwax and skin debris tend to accumulate in your ear canal. The pus, wax, and skin debris blocks the sound waves. So, you will find it difficult to hear properly as the sound waves fail to reach your ears. It can lead to temporary hearing loss. But, it does not mean permanent ear damage.
Feeling Of Fullness
You can feel your ears clogged or plugged. So, you can feel the sensation of fullness in your ear. It happens due to the imbalance in the air pressure in your ears.
Apart from ear pain, you can also experience pain on the side of your neck or face. It is due to the fact that the nerves in your neck and face pass closely along your ear.
Swollen Lymph Nodes
The infection can trigger swelling of lymph nodes in your neck and face region.
Apart from the above-mentioned signs, you can also experience other problems due to the building of wax, pus, and other particles. So, the other issues you can face are:
- Tinnitus (the ringing sensation in your ear)
- Dizziness due to loss of ear balance
- Vertigo or spinning sensation when you stand
Complications Due To Ear Canal Infection
Unlike other infections, swimmer’s ear does not spread to your middle or inner ear. It is due to the fact that your eardrums prevent the bacteria or fungus from passing through. The eardrum is not delicate, so bacteria or fungi cannot infect it easily. You suffer from inner ear infection only due to the problems of Eustachian tubes. The tubes connect your ear to the throat. So, the outer ear infection does not spread to other parts. But, people suffering from diabetes or weakened immune systems need to maintain caution. The outer ear infection can trigger severe complications in rare cases. When people with diabetes or a weak immune system do not seek treatment for ear canal infection, it progresses to malignant otitis externa.
Malignant Otitis Externa
The acidity in your earwax is responsible for defending your ear canal from the bacterial and fungal invasion. The high blood sugar levels in diabetic patients transform the acidic nature of the earwax into alkaline. So, the low acidic nature of your earwax makes it possible for infections to develop and spread to other areas. Severe infections can spread to the surrounding bone and cause complications. The condition is referred to as malignant otitis externa. It requires immediate medical attention. In early cases, your doctor can treat it with antibiotics. While severe cases require surgery. If left untreated, the problem can cause fatal complications.
Diagnosing Ear Canal Infection
When you observe pain or one of the symptoms mentioned above, you need to see a doctor. Getting treatment as early as possible can prevent any further complications. So, your doctor uses the following diagnostic techniques to detect the problems:
In most cases, the external ear infection is detected by a physical examination. The doctor gently pushes the tragus (the small flap of the ear near in front of your ear canal opening) or pull the earlobe. If you experience pain, then it points towards infection. To conclude the site of infection, your doctor uses otoscope. It is the instrument used by doctors to examine the ears. So, looking into the ear using the instrument can offer information on the type of infection. In normal cases, your healthy eardrum has a pinkish-gray color. Any change in the color indicates the presence of infection. The infected ear canal has swelling and reddish color to it. Based on the physical appearance, your doctor makes a diagnosis.
It is another effective method to detect ear canal infection. Tympanometry is the procedure used to measure the response of your eardrum to the changes of air pressure inside the ear. Depending on the results, your doctor can come to a specific conclusion.
It is the common test used to diagnose outer infection in children. Kids can get water in both the ears, which leads to infection. So, hearing tests can provide conclusive information.
The blood tests are ordered by the doctor when immunity issues lead to the infection. So, blood tests can detect any signs of immune problems.
Your doctor can send the sample of the fluid to the lab for testing. The lab culture results can reveal the type of infection. It is ordered by the doctor when the first line of treatment fails to provide results.
Treatment Options For Ear Canal Infection
When you get treatment from an ENT specialist, the problems go away within a week or ten days. You can find relief from the pain after a few days of treatment. The ear canal infection is not contagious. So, you can socialize with your friends. You never have to limit your contact with others due to the infection. Depending on the severity of the swimmer’s ear, you can get the following treatment:
Antibiotics Treatment For Ear Canal Infection
In most of the cases, your doctor prescribes antibiotic eardrop to overcome the infection. The ear drops have a combination of the following:
- A solution, acidic in nature to make your ear canal less fertile for the breeding of bacteria or fungus.
- Steroid to reduce inflammation and swelling
- Antibiotic or antifungal properties to alleviate the infection
Less Severe Ear Canal Infection
For the less severe cases of ear canal infection, you just need to use the antibiotic ear drops. Using it will attack the bacteria/fungus and help overcome the pain. So, if you start using the drops immediately after detecting the problem, it goes away within days.
More Severe Ear Canal Infection
When you have a severe case of infection, your ear canal gets close due to inflammation. Therefore, using the antibiotic drops may not provide you ay relief. So, your doctor first clears the debris from the ear canal. Inserting a wick in the ear canal will help draw the ear drops into the ear. The wick can expand, so it holds the medication near the infected area. Before using the ear drops, hold the container in your hand for some time. It is to warm the ear drops to the body temperature.
Your doctor will first clear the debris out of the ear canal. In severe cases, if the canal is partly closed by inflammation, a wick can be inserted to draw the ear drops in. The wick expands and holds the medication close to the infected area in the ear. When using eardrops, warm them to body temperature by holding the container in your hand for a few minutes before putting the drops in.
Your ENT can suggest taking antibiotics by mouth to cure the chronic cases of infection. The antibiotic treatment can help overcome the severe cases of infection and provide you relief.
When you suffer from swimmer’s ears, you can suffer from pain. Therefore, your doctor suggests taking pain relievers to ease the suffering. In most cases, your doctor can suggest the following medications:
Depending on the pain levels you suffer, your doctor suggests the ideal medication suited for you.
Tips To Recover From Ear Canal Infection
While you take medications to get relief from the ear canal infection, you need to follow some pointers. It will help with fast healing and avoid further issues. Therefore, follow the steps suggested below while using the antibiotics:
Head Out Of Water
When you take antibiotics for the infection, you need to keep your head out of water. So, your doctor suggests you skip swimming, showering or even shampooing. It will keep the water out of your ear canal and ensure quick healing.
Use Cotton Ball
You need to use petroleum jelly coated cotton ball to safeguard your ear from moisture. So, when you take a bath or shower, it will keep water away from the ears.
Refrain From Flying
You need to stop flying till the infection clears. Flying can worsen the problem.
You need to stop using earplugs, headphones, or hearing aids until you kick the infection away. Earplugs and other accessories only worsen the infection.
Prevent Ear Canal Infection
You need to avoid swimming in polluted water and keep the ears dry after swimming or showering. It will avoid any infection affecting your ears. So, you can follow the tips suggested below to prevent ear canal infection:
- Once you take a shower or swim, you need to dry your ears. Use a hairdryer at a low setting to dry the water from your ear canal.
- Never direct the shower jet directly into your ear canal while showering.
- Never use cotton swabs inside your ear canal. The ear wax tends is pushed outside by your ear. So, use the swabs on the outside.
- Try not to use earplugs as they can increase your risk of getting outer ear infections.
- After swimming, you can use over-the-counter acetic acid or alcohol to dry your ear canal.
- Always consult your ENT to clear the earwax buildup.
Your ear can always protect itself from any infection. But, it must have a dry environment to work better. If your ear canal becomes moist, then it allows the bacteria to thrive. It results in in-ear canal infection. Therefore, try to keep your ears dry. Using cotton swabs can affect the ear lining, leading to infection. Therefore, seek a doctor’s assistance to clear earwax. With a few simple steps, you can prevent any infection from affecting your ears.
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