Which antibiotics are most useful for infection following ear piercing? When is it safe to attempt removal of a foreign body from the ear canal, and which cerumenolytic agent may be best for ear wax? This review covers common ailments of the outer ear, which are often readily diagnosed given a patient’s history and thorough physical examination. We also address more complicated matters such as deciding when to refer for treatment of suspected malignant otitis externa, and which lab markers to follow when managing it yourself.
A (very) brief review of ear anatomy
Understanding the unique embryology and intricate anatomy of the external ear informs our understanding of predictable infections, growths, and malformations.
The external ear is composed of the external auditory canal and auricle. The external auditory canal has a lateral (external) cartilaginous portion and a medial (internal) bony portion. The auricular structure is complex and formed by the helix, antihelix (crura; scaphoid fossa), tragus, antitragus, conchae, and lobule. The auricle is composed of elastic cartilage covered by skin. The lobule is composed of skin, adipose tissue, and connective tissue.
Embryologically, the auricle, auditory canal, and middle ear form from ectoderm of the first 2 branchial arches during early gestation. The auricle forms from the fusion of soft-tissue swellings (hillocks). Three hillocks arise from the first branchial arch and 3 from the second branchial arch during the fifth and sixth weeks of gestation. Tissues from the second branchial arch comprise the lobule, antihelix, and caudal helix. The cartilage of the tragus forms from the first branchial arch. The ear canal forms from an epithelial invagination of the first branchial arch that also occurs during the fifth week of gestation.1
Inflammation or infection of the connective tissue layer surrounding the auricular cartilage (perichondrium) results in perichondritis. Further extension of infection can lead to an auricular abscess. Both of these conditions can have serious consequences.
What you’ll see. The most common risk factor for perichondritis is the popular practice of cosmetic transcartilaginous piercing.2 Piercing of the helix, scapha, or anti-helix (often referred to as “high” ear piercing) causes localized trauma that can strip the adjacent perichondrium, decrease blood supply, create cartilaginous microfractures, and lead to devascularization. Rates of infection as high as 35% have been reported with high-ear piercing.3
The most common microbes associated with perichondritis and pinna abscess formation are Pseudomonas and Staphylococcus species.2 P aeruginosa accounts for a majority (87%) of post-piercing infections of the auricular cartilage.2
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