Otitis externa is a common ear infection that’s also known as swimmer’s ear. It develops in the inner ear. In some cases, otitis externa can spread to the outer ear and surrounding tissue, including the bones of the jaw and face. This infection is known as malignant otitis externa.
Although malignant otitis externa shares part of its name with swimmer’s ear, the condition isn’t due to water remaining in the ear canal. Bacteria such as Pseudomonas aeruginosa often cause malignant otitis externa. Over 90 percent of people who develop malignant otitis externa have diabetes.
Malignant otitis externa is an aggressive infection rather than a malignancy, or cancer. An alternative name for malignant otitis externa is necrotizing external otitis. If it’s left untreated, malignant otitis externa can be a life-threatening condition.
Malignant otitis externa isn’t commonly a complication of swimmer’s ear. Typically, the condition occurs when you have other health problems or you’re receiving treatment that can weaken your immune system. These can include:
- chemotherapy treatment
If you have a compromised immune system and aggressive bacteria enter your ear canal, your body will have difficulty warding off infection. If the bacteria causes an infection, the infection can damage the tissue of your ear canal and the bones at the base of your skull. If it’s left untreated, the infection can spread to your brain, cranial nerves, and other parts of your body.
The symptoms of malignant otitis externa are easily recognizable. They can include:
- persistent and foul-smelling yellow or green drainage from the ear
- ear pain that gets worse when moving the head
- hearing loss
- persistent itching in the ear canal
- difficulty swallowing
- weakness in the facial muscles
- loss of voice, or laryngitis
If any of these symptoms develop, contact your doctor immediately. Early treatment will help stop the spread of the infection. This will reduce other health complications that result from the infection.
Your doctor will perform a physical exam to determine if you have malignant otitis externa. The exam will include a complete health history to identify underlying conditions that may have compromised your immune system.
During the exam, your doctor will look into your ear to see if there’s an infection. Your doctor will also examine your head and behind your ear. If there’s drainage from the ear, your doctor may take a sample, or culture, of the drainage. They’ll send this sample to a lab for analysis. This will help identify the bacteria causing the infection.
If you have malignant otitis externa, your doctor may order additional tests to see if the infection has spread. Such tests include:
- a neurological exam
- a CT scan of the head
- an MRI scan of the head
- a radionuclide scan
Treatment for malignant otitis externa typically involves antibiotic therapy. The condition can be difficult to treat. You may need to remain on antibiotics for several months. You may need antibiotics delivered intravenously, or through a vein in your arm, if your condition is severe. You must continue treatment until tests show that the infection is gone.
You may also need surgery if significant tissue damage occurs as a result of the infection. Surgery can remove damaged tissue. Your doctor will tell you if you need surgery. Surgery occurs after the infection has been cured.
The best thing you can do to prevent malignant otitis externa is to treat all swimmer’s ear infections until they’re gone. This means following your doctor’s advice and finishing the complete dose of your antibiotics.
In addition, if you have a compromised immune system, you should take steps to protect your health. If you have diabetes, this means controlling blood sugar levels. If you have HIV, this means adhering to medications to control the replication of the virus in your body. Protecting your health is important for boosting your immune system and preventing the onset of an infection.
If you have a compromised immune system, the infection may return. Recurrent infections can cause damage to the cranial nerves and brain. Spread of the infection to the brain is rare, but it may result in permanent injury and even death. Follow your doctor’s instructions to help prevent recurrent infections.