A small boil (furuncle) that occurs in the ear canal can be very painful. It usually clears without treatment. However, painkillers and antibiotic medicines are sometimes needed. Tips on how to help prevent further episodes are given below.
What are the symptoms of a boil in the ear canal?
The main symptom is pain. This pain may become quite severe even though the boil is usually small. This is because of the location of the boil.
Other symptoms may include itch, irritation and sometimes a temporary hearing loss whilst the infection is present.
If the boil bursts, you may have a sudden discharge from the ear. If this happens, the pain often eases dramatically and the symptoms soon settle.
What causes a boil in the ear canal?
Mostly they occur 'out of the blue' for no apparent reason. They are like most spots or small boils that can occur on any area of the skin. In some cases the infection develops on damaged skin. You can damage the skin in the ear canal if you poke your ear with such objects as a cotton wool bud. Slightly damaged skin can quickly become inflamed and infected.
What is the treatment for a boil in the ear?
Like most small spots or tiny boils, a furuncle is likely to go without any treatment. The body's immune system can usually clear germs (bacteria) that cause small boils. However, the pain may be bad until it goes.
The following may be used as treatment:
- You may need painkillers.
- A cloth (flannel) soaked in hot water and then held against the ear may relieve the pain.
- Antibiotics, such as flucloxacillin, are sometimes needed if it does not clear on its own or if the infection is severe.
- Sometimes the boil becomes larger and more painful. You may need to be referred to an ear specialist if this happens.
Can I prevent infections in the ear canal?
Some people find that water, soap, shampoo, hair spray, etc, which gets into their ears can cause irritation or itch. The itch may cause you to poke or scratch the ear canal with a finger or a cotton wool bud. This may damage the skin in the ear canal and cause inflammation. Inflamed skin can quickly become infected.
Some people try to clean out their ears with cotton buds. This is not only unnecessary but may damage the skin in the ear canal.
Therefore, you may prevent infections of the ear canal by the following:
- Try not to scratch or poke the ear canal with fingers, cotton buds, towels, etc.
- Do not clean the ear canal with cotton buds. They may scratch or irritate and may push dirt and wax further into the ear. The ear will clean itself, and bits of wax will fall out now and then.
- If you have sensitive ears, keep the ear canal dry and avoid soap or shampoo getting in. You can do this when you shower by placing a piece of cotton wool coated in soft white paraffin (for example, Vaseline®) in the outer ear. Do not use corners of towels or cotton buds to dry any water that does get into the ear canal. This will only push things further in. Let the ear dry naturally. When you swim try to keep your ears dry. You can do this by wearing a tightly fitting cap that covers the ears. Some swimmers use silicone rubber earplugs. However, only use them if they do not irritate the skin in your ear canal.
Further reading and references
Boils, carbuncles, and staphylococcal carriage; NICE CKS, January 2021 (UK access only)
Otitis externa; NICE CKS, February 2018 (UK access only)
Kashyap RC; Management of Common Otological Diseases at a Peripheral Medical Set Up. Med J Armed Forces India. 2003 Oct59(4):332-6. doi: 10.1016/S0377-1237(03)80148-X. Epub 2011 Jul 21.