Fungal Ear Infection
Fungal ear infection is an infection of the ear with a fungus. It normally involves the canal that runs from the ear hole to the eardrum (the external auditory canal). The medical term for it is otomycosis.
What are the symptoms?
I don't know why the man who classified them chose the term fungi (the plural of fungus), because a fungal infection rarely has anything to do with fun. But then his name was Elias Magnus Fries, so maybe he had a chip on his shoulder.
Fungal infections of the ear involve pain and itching. The outer ear (by which I mean the bit your child hangs on to during piggy back rides) becomes red and the skin may start to go flaky. Just when you think that's about the worst it can get, Mother Nature sometimes fits your ear canal with a small brewery churning out pint after pint of foul-smelling gooey liquid. As bad as this may seem, just be thankful you're not Shrek.
Who gets it?
Just take off that wet suit and listen, will ya? Do you seriously expect to go SCUBA diving and waterskiing in a hot country and pour what amounts to a warm fungal soup into your ear without any consequences? No my friend, you will bring back more than an Aloha T-shirt and an inflatable palm tree from that dream holiday. You have been warned.
Read more about the symptoms of a fungal ear infection.
What causes it?
If it's more common in people who spend their holidays in hot countries spraying sea water in to their ears, I think you can put two and two together.
But doc, you say, I spent my holidays in Skegness and I still got a fungal ear infection. What's that all about? Well, even in the UK, temperatures can climb in the summer, the popular season for fungal infections. And do you poke your ears with cotton buds? Earwax does have a purpose in fighting bugs. Leave it alone and let it do its job. If you have trouble hearing, go see a doctor. Lecture over.
Learn more about the causes of a fungal ear infection.
How is it diagnosed?
If you attend your surgery wearing a Hawaiian shirt, a snorkel and flippers, a fungal ear infection may not be the first diagnosis on your doctor's mind. However, once you tell them your symptoms, the penny should soon drop. If there are no clues, it'll most likely be diagnosed after an ear swab.
Find out more about the diagnosis of a fungal ear infection.
How is it treated?
Chances are you'll pop into a chemist who will flog you a 2% acetic acid spray. Acetic acid is the main ingredient of vinegar, but I wouldn't go down the nearest chip shop and pour a bottle of Sarson's® into your ear (other brands are available): it's much too strong.
You'll almost certainly end up going to see your GP who will prescribe some antifungal drops, with or without steroids. No one knows which ones are best so it's a bit of trial and error. If that doesn't work, you might need to see a specialist.
Discover more about the treatment of a fungal ear infection.
What is the outlook?
If the antifungal drops work it'll all settle down quickly and the episode (along with that night under the stars in Honolulu) will become a faded memory. However, you might not be so lucky, and the infection may persist or re-appear from time to time. This is more likely to happen if you have a condition that makes you prone to infections, you keep attacking your ears with cotton buds, or you just can't resist the motion of the ocean.
Read more about the outlook (prognosis) of a fungal ear infection.
What are the symptoms of a fungal ear infection?
An explanation of the different types of ear infection and which parts of the ear are involved can be found in the separate leaflet called Ear Infection (Otitis Media).
This leaflet is about infection of the ear canal (otitis externa) with a fungus. Other causes of otitis externa can be found in the separate leaflet called Otitis Externa and Painful, Discharging Ears.
Typically, the ear starts to look red and the skin on the outer part of the ear becomes scaly. It may start to itch and become quite uncomfortable. You may notice discharge beginning to leak out of the ear.
The itching is often worse with fungal infections than with other types of ear infection. Apart from this the symptoms of a fungal ear infection are often identical to ear infections caused by germs (bacteria). This means your doctor may prescribe antibiotic ear drops to start with and may only suspect a fungal infection when the treatment doesn't work.
Who gets a fungal infection of the ear?
Fungal infection of the ear is more common in people living in tropical and subtropical countries. It's also more common in people who do a lot of water sports such as SCUBA diving and surfing. It occurs more often in the summer than the winter.
About 1 in 8 people with infections of the outer part of the ear (otitis externa) have fungal infections.
What causes a fungal infection of the ear?
Earwax (cerumen) protects the lining of the ear from fungus so anything that reduces the amount of wax (such as sea water splashing into the ear canal and overuse of cotton buds) will allow a fungal infection to take hold. Eczema of the skin inside the ear can be another risk factor.
The outside temperature plays a significant part. Fungi grow faster in the heat, so it's more common in warmer climates. In the UK it occurs more often in summer than in winter.
9 out of 10 fungal infections are due to a fungus belonging to the Aspergillus species and the rest are caused by a fungus of the Candida species.
How is a fungal infection of the ear diagnosed?
It you've just come back from SCUBA diving in Hawaii, your doctor may well suspect a fungal cause for your ear infection. Otherwise, because a fungal infection looks just like an infection from germs (bacteria), it's unlikely to be the first thing your doctor thinks of. Most likely, a fungal infection will only be suspected if your infection does not improve with antibiotic drops prescribed for a bacterial infection.
Will I need any tests for a fungal ear infection?
Your doctor will probably treat your ear first and take an ear swab if the condition doesn't get better. Taking an ear swab is a fairly simple procedure and involves the doctor (or nurse) putting a swab that looks very similar to a cotton bud in your ear and swishing it around. This shouldn't be painful unless your ear is very tender and inflamed from the infection. Even then, gentle swabbing should only cause mild discomfort.
When should I see a doctor about a fungal ear infection?
Fungal ear infections usually cause a fair amount of discomfort and discharge so most people want to see a doctor soon after the condition starts. There are some eardrops available from pharmacies, but the best they can do is reduce the inflammation a bit. In fungal infections, they don't usually have much effect.
See a doctor sooner rather than later if:
- You are in a lot of pain.
- Your ear produces a lot of discharge.
- You feel generally unwell or develop unusual symptoms such as dizziness.
- You have a high temperature.
- The outer part of your ear looks very mucky.
- Your hearing becomes muffled.
- You've bought some treatment from the chemist which hasn't worked.
How is a fungal ear infection treated?
If the inside of your ear looks really messy, the doctor may suggest a clean-up. This has the odd name of aural toilet. It can be done by a doctor or more usually a nurse. It involves gently clearing the ear of discharge using swabs, a suction tube or syringe. This may need to be done several times a week in the first instance. Aural toileting eases discomfort and also helps ear drops to get to the right place. However, it may be a bit uncomfortable while you're having it done, and you may need to take some painkillers.
Don't fiddle with your ear, keep it dry and try to resist scratching inside, however itchy it may be, as this will stop the infection from clearing up. It's not usually advisable to put a cotton wool plug in the ear unless you get a lot of discharge and you need to keep it under control for the sake of appearances.
Avoid swimming until the condition clears up.
Your doctor may prescribe 5% aluminium acetate ear drops. This is also known as Burow's solution. It's not an antifungal but is used to calm down inflammation and help remove any muck in your ear.
A similar preparation that helps with inflammation is 2% acetic acid. This is available on prescription or can be bought from the chemist in the form of EarCalm® spray.
There are a number of antifungal ear drops available which may be useful, such as clotrimazole 1% ear drops or an antifungal/steroid combination such as flumetasone pivalate 0.02% plus clioquinol 1% ear drops. There's no real evidence that one is better than another.
If you've tried antifungal drops for a couple of weeks and you're still having problems, stop the treatment and go back and see your doctor. You may need further investigation and/or referral to a specialist. Hospital doctors have special ways of getting the ear clean and dry, such as inserting a pack made from ribbon gauze, a wick made of sponge that hangs out of the ear and drains it or suction using a tiny tube (microsuction).
What is the outlook for a fungal ear infection?
Providing you're otherwise fit and well and your immune system is working properly, the infection should respond fairly quickly to antifungal treatment. However, if you have a long-term condition that makes you prone to getting repeated infections (such as diabetes or AIDS) it may well come back or become persistent. Also if you're exposed to whatever it was that caused the infection in the first place (for example, you go straight back to water sports again), it's likely to return. The problem with fungal infections (and other types of otitis externa) is that once the ear canal is infected the defence system protecting the ear may not return to normal and a vicious cycle is set up. This explains why frequently poking around inside your ear with a cotton bud (some people call it 'cleaning out the ear') prolongs the condition.
Further reading & references
- Herasym K, Bonaparte JP, Kilty S; A comparison of Locacorten-Vioform and clotrimazole in otomycosis: A systematic review and one-way meta-analysis. Laryngoscope. 2016 Jun;126(6):1411-9. doi: 10.1002/lary.25761. Epub 2015 Nov 24.
- Otitis Externa; DermNet NZ
- Anwar K, Gohar MS; Otomycosis; clinical features, predisposing factors and treatment implications. Pak J Med Sci. 2014 May;30(3):564-7. doi: 10.12669/pjms.303.4106.
Disclaimer: This article is for information only and should not be used for the diagnosis or treatment of medical conditions. Patient Platform Limited has used all reasonable care in compiling the information but makes no warranty as to its accuracy. Consult a doctor or other healthcare professional for diagnosis and treatment of medical conditions. For details see our conditions.
Dr Laurence Knott
Dr Helen Huins