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Otitis Externa Clinical Presentation

  • Author: Ariel A Waitzman, MD, FRCSC; Chief Editor: Ravindhra G Elluru, MD, PhD  more...
 
Updated: Jul 11, 2016
 

History

Patients with otitis externa (OE) may complain of the following:

  • Otalgia, ranging from mild to severe, typically progressing over 1-2 days
  • Hearing loss
  • Ear fullness or pressure
  • Tinnitus
  • Fever (occasionally)
  • Itching (especially in fungal OE or chronic OE)
  • Severe deep pain – If this is experienced by a patient who is immunocompromised or diabetic, be alerted to the possibility of necrotizing (malignant) OE
  • Discharge – Initially, the discharge may be clear and odorless, but it quickly becomes purulent and foul-smelling
  • Bilateral symptoms (rare)
  • Frequently, a history of exposure to or activities in water (eg, swimming, surfing, and kayaking)
  • Usually, a history of preceding ear trauma (eg, forceful ear cleaning, use of cotton swabs, or water in the ear canal)
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Physical Examination

The key physical finding of OE is pain upon palpation of the tragus (anterior to ear canal) or application of traction to the pinna (the hallmark of OE). Examination reveals erythema, edema, and narrowing of the external auditory canal (EAC), and a purulent or serous discharge may be noted (see the image below). Conductive hearing loss may be evident. Cellulitis of the face or neck or lymphadenopathy of the ipsilateral neck occurs in some patients.

Acute otitis externa. Ear canal is red and edemato Acute otitis externa. Ear canal is red and edematous, and discharge is present.

The tympanic membrane may be difficult to visualize and may be mildly inflamed, but it should be normally mobile on insufflation. Eczema of the pinna may be present. By definition, cranial nerve (CN) involvement (ie, of CNs VII and IX-XII) is not associated with simple OE.

Fungal OE results in severe itching but typically causes less pain than bacterial OE does. A thick discharge that may be white or gray is often present. Whereas pseudomonal infection produces purulent otorrhea that may be green or yellow, Aspergillus otomycosis looks like a fine white mat topped by black spheres. Upon close examination, the discharge may contain visible fungal elements (eg, spores or hyphae) or have a fuzzy appearance.

The sine qua non of necrotizing OE is pain that is out of proportion to the clinical findings. Upon close examination, granulation tissue may be present in the ear canal.

In severe cases, the infection may spread to the surrounding soft tissues, including the parotid gland. Bony extension may also occur into the mastoid bone, temporomandibular joint, and base of the skull, in which case cranial nerves VII (facial), IX (glossopharyngeal), X (vagus), XI (accessory), or XII (hypoglossal) may be affected.

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Complications

Complications of OE are rare and may include the following:

  • Necrotizing OE (the most significant complication)
  • Mastoiditis
  • Chondritis of the auricle (from spread of acute OE to the pinna, particularly in patients with newly pierced ears)
  • Bony erosion of the base of the skull (skull base osteomyelitis [16] )
  • Central nervous system (CNS) infection
  • Cellulitis or lymphadenitis

Diabetic ketoacidosis is often present in diabetics with this condition.

Herpes zoster may initially present with symptoms similar to those of OE, and vesicular eruption may occur 1-2 days after the initial symptoms. Ramsay Hunt syndrome is a rare complication of herpes zoster and presents with peripheral unilateral facial palsy. Patients should be counseled on this possible presentation and advised to seek medical care if it occurs.[17]

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Contributor Information and Disclosures
Author

Ariel A Waitzman, MD, FRCSC Assistant Professor of Otolaryngology, Wayne State University School of Medicine

Ariel A Waitzman, MD, FRCSC is a member of the following medical societies: Canadian Society of Otolaryngology-Head & Neck Surgery, American Academy of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery, American Medical Association, Michigan State Medical Society

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Chief Editor

Ravindhra G Elluru, MD, PhD Professor, Wright State University, Boonshoft School of Medicine; Pediatric Otolaryngologist, Department of Otolaryngology, Dayton Children's Hospital Medical Center

Ravindhra G Elluru, MD, PhD is a member of the following medical societies: American Academy of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery, American Academy of Pediatrics, American Bronchoesophagological Association, American College of Surgeons, American Medical Association, Association for Research in Otolaryngology, Society for Ear, Nose and Throat Advances in Children, Triological Society, American Society for Cell Biology

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Acknowledgements

Jerry Balentine, DO Professor of Emergency Medicine, New York College of Osteopathic Medicine; Executive Vice President, Chief Medical Officer, Attending Physician in Department of Emergency Medicine, St. Barnabas Hospital

Jerry Balentine, DO is a member of the following medical societies: American College of Emergency Physicians, American College of Osteopathic Emergency Physicians, American College of Physician Executives, American Osteopathic Association, and New York Academy of Medicine

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

anjiv K Bhalla, MD Consulting Staff, Department of Emergency Medicine, St Paul's Hospital of Vancouver, St Joseph's Hospital of Hamilton

Sanjiv K Bhalla, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American College of Emergency Physicians, British Columbia Medical Association, Canadian Association of Emergency Physicians, Canadian Medical Association, Canadian Medical Protective Association, and Ontario Medical Association

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Orval Brown, MD Director of Otolaryngology Clinic, Professor, Department of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery, University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas

Orval Brown, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American Academy of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery, American Academy of Pediatrics, American Bronchoesophagological Association, American College of Surgeons, American Medical Association, American Society of Pediatric Otolaryngology, Society for Ear, Nose and Throat Advances in Children, and Society of University Otolaryngologists-Head and Neck Surgeons

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Pamela L Dyne, MD Professor of Clinical Medicine/Emergency Medicine, David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA; Attending Physician, Department of Emergency Medicine, Olive View-UCLA Medical Center

Pamela L Dyne, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American Academy of Emergency Medicine, American College of Emergency Physicians, and Society for Academic Emergency Medicine

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Mark W Fourre, MD Program Director, Department of Emergency Medicine, Maine Medical Center; Associate Clinical Professor, Department of Surgery, University of Vermont School of Medicine

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Joseph P Garry, MD, FACSM, FAAFP Associate Professor, Department of Family and Community Medicine, University of Minnesota Medical School

Joseph P Garry, MD, FACSM, FAAFP is a member of the following medical societies: American Academy of Family Physicians, American College of Sports Medicine, American Medical Society for Sports Medicine, and Minnesota Medical Association

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Gerard J Gianoli, MD Clinical Associate Professor, Department of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery, Tulane University School of Medicine; Vice President, The Ear and Balance Institute; Chief Executive Officer, Ponchartrain Surgery Center

Gerard J Gianoli, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American Academy of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery, American College of Surgeons, American Neurotology Society, American Otological Society, Society of University Otolaryngologists-Head and Neck Surgeons, and Triological Society

Disclosure: Vesticon, Inc. None Board membership

Ashutosh Kacker, MD Associate Professor of Otorhinolaryngology, Department of Otolaryngology, Weill Cornell Medical College; Associate Attending Physician, Otolaryngologist, New York Presbyterian Hospital; Attending Physician, New York Hospital of Queens; Attending Physician, Lenox Hill Hospital

Ashutosh Kacker, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American Academy of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery, American College of Surgeons, American Rhinologic Society, and Triological Society

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Samuel Lee, MD, MS Resident Physician, Department of Emergency Medicine, Wayne State University School of Medicine, Detroit Receiving Hospital

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

John E McClay, MD Associate Professor of Pediatric Otolaryngology, Department of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery, Children's Hospital of Dallas, University of Texas Southwestern Medical School

John E McClay, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American Academy of Otolaryngic Allergy, American Academy of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery, American College of Surgeons, and American Medical Association

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Adam J Rosh, MD Assistant Professor, Department of Emergency Medicine, Wayne State University/Detroit Receiving Hospital

Adam J Rosh, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American Academy of Emergency Medicine, American College of Emergency Physicians, and Society for Academic Emergency Medicine

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Andrew L Sherman, MD, MS Associate Professor of Clinical Rehabilitation Medicine, Vice Chairman, Chief of Spine and Musculoskeletal Services, Program Director, SCI Fellowship and PMR Residency Programs, Department of Rehabilitation Medicine, University of Miami, Leonard A Miller School of Medicine

Andrew L Sherman, MD, MS is a member of the following medical societies: American Academy of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, American Association of Neuromuscular and Electrodiagnostic Medicine, American Medical Association, and Association of Academic Physiatrists

Disclosure: Pfizer Honoraria Speaking and teaching

Jack A Shohet, MD President, Shohet Ear Associates Medical Group, Inc; Associate Clinical Professor, Department of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery, University of California, Irvine, School of Medicine

Jack A Shohet, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American Academy of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery, American Medical Association, American Neurotology Society, American Tinnitus Association, and California Medical Association

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Francisco Talavera, PharmD, PhD Adjunct Assistant Professor, University of Nebraska Medical Center College of Pharmacy; Editor-in-Chief, Medscape Drug Reference

Disclosure: Medscape Salary Employment

Russell D White, MD Professor of Medicine, Professor of Orthopedic Surgery, Director of Sports Medicine Fellowship Program, Medical Director, Sports Medicine Center, Head Team Physician, University of Missouri-Kansas City Intercollegiate Athletic Program, Department of Community and Family Medicine, University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Medicine, Truman Medical Center-Lakewood

Russell D White, MD, is a member of the following medical societies: Alpha Omega Alpha, American Academy of Family Physicians, American Association of Clinical Endocrinologists, American College of Sports Medicine, American Diabetes Association, and American Medical Society for Sports Medicine

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Mary L Windle, PharmD Adjunct Associate Professor, University of Nebraska Medical Center College of Pharmacy; Editor-in-Chief, Medscape Drug Reference

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Craig C Young, MD Professor, Departments of Orthopedic Surgery and Community and Family Medicine, Medical Director of Sports Medicine, Director of Primary Care Sports Medicine Fellowship, Medical College of Wisconsin

Craig C Young, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American Academy of Family Physicians, American College of Sports Medicine, American Medical Society for Sports Medicine, and Phi Beta Kappa

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

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Acute otitis externa. Ear canal is red and edematous, and discharge is present.
Otitis externa with ear wick in place. Note discharge from canal and swelling of canal.
Anatomy of external and middle ear.
 
 
 
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