Itchy or sore ears
Inflammation can occur due to a skin condition or allergy such as to antibiotic ear drops or to hair lacquer, or when the skin becomes infected or damaged. Known to doctors as otitis externa, it is a very common condition that affects people of all ages. Normally, the ear has a self-cleaning mechanism which gradually expels dead skin, dust and bacteria. However, this doesn’t always work as well as it should.
The symptoms of otitis externa can develop overnight, particularly if caused by swimming, or can come on more slowly and then persist. Otitis externa can be more common in hot, humid conditions, among people who swim a lot, and those with very narrow ear canals who may get unclean water trapped in their ears.
A particular form of otitis externa is a boil at the entrance to the ear canal known as a furuncle, which is the result of an infected hair follicle. Although the spot itself may be small, the pinna can become too painful to touch.
How is otitis externa treated?
If the problem seems very minor, an ear spray containing acetic acid may help. This can be purchased over the counter from a pharmacy and acts to restore and maintain normal acidity in the ear canal.
In all other cases, it is important to seek medical treatment. In the first instance, a doctor or nurse might try to remove the discharge and debris lying in the ear canal. If your ear is dry, itchy or inflamed, but not infected, they may use steroid ear drops.
If your ear is infected, a dressing covered in antibiotic ointment may be inserted into the ear to remain in place for a couple of days. Alternatively, an ear drop or ear spray may be prescribed which contains both an antibiotic and steroid. If the infection does not appear to be clearing up, a different antibiotic may be required and a sample of discharge sent to the laboratory to find out more precisely which bacteria are causing the infection.
If the infection is very painful and affecting the face and scalp around the ear, a course of oral antibiotics may also be prescribed.
Persistent symptoms can sometimes be due to a fungal infection. It is identified by the type of discharge in the ear canal and the intense itching which it causes. The ear canal has to be thoroughly cleaned and treated with antifungal ointment or drops until three weeks after all symptoms have gone.
If you would like more information or guidance on itchy or sore ears, please get in touch with our Advisory Service.