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Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About the Outer Ear

As summer approaches, it’s a good time to learn about the problems that can affect your outer ear. If you’re going to the beach this summer, your outer ear is at risk for potential problems. These helpful hints can assist you throughout the summer, and the remainder of the year, as well.

First off, what is the outer ear? Well, basically, it’s the part of the ear that you can see. It’s the curly thing that sticks out from the head, known as the pinna, as well as the ear canal down to the eardrum. The pinna is made of cartilage, and the ear canal is part cartilage and part bone, covered by skin. The skin is very thin here, the bone is very close to the surface, and the near endings are very sensitive. For this reason, outer ear problems can be quite painful. Manipulation of the outer ear can also be rather uncomfortable, and should only be done by a trained professional.

One of the most conditions seen during the summer months is the swimmer’s ear. This is an acute infection of the ear canal caused by bacteria. The canal becomes very swollen and painful, and sometimes the ear will drain pus. While most often attributed to swimming, it can also occur after bathing or showering, if water remains in the ear canal. Usually, towel drying is sufficient to prevent swimmer’s ear, but some people are more prone to the infection. If this is a frequent problem for you, the infection can often be prevented by instilling a few drops of rubbing alcohol into the ear canals, after swimming, bathing or showering. The alcohol evaporates the water. Once the infection has occurred, then you should seek medical attention. Combination antibiotic and steroid ear drops are usually required to kill the bacteria and reduced the swelling.

Another common outer ear problem is not limited to the summer. Ear wax, known as cerumen, can become impacted in the canal, causing hearing loss and pain. Perhaps, the most common mistake people make is to use Q-tips in the ear. Q-tips are for cleaning guns and applying makeup, not for removing ear wax. They can pack the wax in deeper, cause injury to the ear canal or the eardrum, and leave cotton in the ear canal as a foreign body. Flushing the ear canal with vinegar or peroxide, several times a week, can help to dissolve and remove a small amount of ear wax, before it can accumulate. Use a small bulb syringe which can be purchased in the pharmacy. If a large plug of ear wax remains, then you should seek professional medical attention to remove the plug.

Chronic inflammation or eczema of the outer ear can occur, often associated with itching, flaking and swelling of the ear canal. This is most often caused by food or yeast allergies. Topical ear drops can improve the symptoms, but only temporarily. Usually, allergy testing and immunotherapy are required to control the underlying problem. Foreign bodies can also wind up in the outer ear. The aforementioned Q-tip is an example. Other common foreign bodies include insects, beads, erasers, or just about anything that will fit into the ear. Professional medical attention is required to remove most foreign bodies from the ear canal.

Hopefully, this primer has taught you to appreciate your outer ear. It’s an often ignored part of the body until it becomes the site of a problem. Enjoy your summer, and stay healthy.

Timothy A. Queen, MD is a board certified otolaryngologist and a fellowship trained otolaryngic allergist. He owns Advanced ENT & Allergy, in Oyster Point of Newport News. Please call 757-873-0338 for an appointment.

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