The anatomy of the ear is described in three regions, called the inner ear, the middle ear and the outer ear. The outer ear is the part of the ear that we can see, along with the outer portion of the ear canal. The middle ear consists of the deep ear canal and the region that contains the eardrum. The inner ear is deeper still and contains the hearing organs. Pain that affects the outer portion of the ear and the outer ear canal can have several different causes, from an external ear infection to trauma or a blockage in the outer ear canal.
An external ear infection is also called otitis externa or “swimmer’s ear.” This type of infection is usually caused by bacteria that grow in the ear canal and the outside of the ear, but it can also be caused by a fungal infection in rare cases. Otitis externa is sometimes called swimmer’s ear because it is common to contract the infection by swimming in water that is polluted with certain types of bacteria that can grow in the ear canal. The inflammation associated with otitis externa can also be caused by an allergic reaction or certain skin diseases like psoriasis and eczema.
Symptoms of an external ear infection include pain in the ear canal, pain or tenderness in the outer portion of the ear, itching of the outer ear and ear canal, abnormal drainage from the ear canal and decreased hearing. Swimmer’s ear is usually treated with medicated ear drops containing antibiotic chemicals. Different medications may be needed if the infection is caused by a fungus, allergic reaction or skin disease.
Other possible causes of outer ear pain include trauma that affects the ear or ear canal, and a blockage of the ear canal by ear wax or a foreign object. Ear trauma can cause bruising of the outer portion of the ear, which can result in outer ear pain and tenderness. Sometimes, trauma to the jaw bone can cause noticeable referred pain in the outer ear. The treatment for ear trauma depends on the type and severity of the injury. Ear wax normally comes out of the ear canal on its own, but sometimes it can get compacted and cause discomfort in the ear canal. In this case, the wax can be flushed out by a doctor with water. Ear pain due to the ear canal being blocked by a foreign object is common in young children, who may put small beads, objects or food in their ear canal. These objects can be extracted at the doctor’s office.