What Causes Staph Infections in the Ear and How to Treat Them

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Staphylococcus aureus (staph) is a type of bacteria that is common in the environment. It is responsible for many infections, including ear infections, skin infections, boils, and sepsis.

It’s normal for people to have some staph bacteria on their skin or inside their noses. The bacteria are not causing an active infection or harm, but some of these people are “carriers” and can spread the germ to others.

Carriers can also become infected if their immune system becomes stressed or through a cut in their skin.

Most staph infections are easily treated with antibiotics. Certain strains, such as methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), are resistant to antibiotics and can be hard to treat.

Staphylococcus aureus can cause a type of ear infection called otitis externa, also known as “swimmer’s ear.” The infection involves the ear canal, which has both a bony and a cartilaginous portion.

Auricular cellulitis is an infection of the outer ear, which is the cartilage portion of the ear that you can see and touch, including the lobe, helix, and ear canal.

Staph is not the only germ that can cause otitis externa, but it’s a common cause of the condition.

Staph Infection in the Ear Symptoms

Verywell / Jessica Olah

Causes

Otitis externa is called “swimmer’s ear” because it commonly occurs when water gets left in the ear after swimming or bathing. The water creates a moist environment in which germs can grow and cause infection.

Other causes of otitis externa include:

  • Humidity and sweating: Some bacteria and other germs thrive in moist environments.
  • Trauma: This can occur when the skin of the outer ear is broken from a scratch or other type of injury.
  • Earbuds or hearing aids: If these devices are not kept clean, they can introduce bacteria into the outer ear.
  • Eczema or psoriasis: These skin conditions can affect the outer ear.
  • Contact dermatitis: This is a skin reaction that causes a rash that may occur in the outer ear.

MRSA

Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) is a type of Staphylococcus aureus that is resistant to some antibiotics. It is common in the environment and is spread the same way as non-resistant strains of staph.

You can catch MRSA from someone that has it if you touch the infected area and do not wash your hands thoroughly.

Symptoms

A staph infection of your ear may cause one or more of the following symptoms:

Rarely, a staph infection of the outer ear can cause hearing loss.

Complications

A serious complication of staph infections of the outer ear canal is malignant otitis externa, which occurs when the infection spreads from the external auditory canal to the base of the skull (the temporal bone).

Malignant otitis externa is more common in people who have diabetes or a compromised immune system, but it can also occur in people who do not have these conditions.

The condition can damage cranial nerves, bone tissue, and in extreme cases even result in death. To avoid malignant otitis externa, it’s important to treat otitis externa promptly.

Fortunately, malignant otitis externa is not a cancer, is very rare, and is mostly seen in immunocompromised patients and people with diabetes.

Diagnosis

Your healthcare provider can sometimes diagnose a staph infection in the ear just by looking at it with an otoscope, asking you about your symptoms, and testing any drainage for the presence of staph bacteria.

If your infection is severe, your doctor might need to rule out malignant otitis externa by performing a CT scan or MRI.

Treatment

Antibiotic Ear Drops

Antibiotic ear drops are one of the most common treatments for otitis externa. Ear drops are preferred over systemic antibiotics because they typically have fewer side effects and get the medication directly to the site of the infection.

Swelling of the ear can make it hard to administer ear drops correctly. If you are having difficulty, your doctor can insert a wick (basically a long, thin piece of gauze) into your ear to help deliver the medication.

You need to use ear drops exactly as prescribed by your doctor to cure your infection and prevent the formation of resistant bacteria.

Oral (Systemic) Antibiotics

Systemic antibiotics are medications that are given by mouth (orally) or delivered directly into the bloodstream (intravenously).

Oral antibiotics are not the preferred treatment for mild to moderate causes of otitis externa because the medications may have side effects.

However, in some cases, oral antibiotics are prescribed to treat a staph infection of the ear—such as when the ear is too swollen, the eardrum is ruptured, or the infection has spread beyond the outer ear.

Steroid Ear Drops

Steroids are medications that suppress the inflammatory response of the immune system, which reduces inflammation, swelling, itching, and redness. Steroid drops alone will not cure an otitis externa infection, but they can ease the symptoms.

Pain Relief

Your doctor may recommend a mild over-the-counter (OTC) pain reliever such as acetaminophen to relieve any discomfort that you are experiencing.

Treating MRSA

Even though MRSA is a type of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, it still needs to be treated with antibiotics. Care must be taken to make sure that the antibiotic used will be effective.

Your doctor may try to get a sample of ear drainage to test. This can help them determine which antibiotic will be effective against the bacteria. Multiple antibiotics might be needed.

Do not touch your infection, and make sure that you wash your hands frequently to avoid spreading MRSA.

Prevention

Here are some steps you can take to prevent otitis externa:

  • Use a blow dryer on a cool setting to dry your ears out after swimming or bathing.
  • Get the water out of your ears after swimming or bathing by tilting your head to the side and gently pulling on your ear lobe to straighten out the ear canal to let the water run out.
  • Use earplugs or a good swimming cap to keep water out of your ears when swimming or bathing.
  • Do not stick anything in your ears (such as a cotton swab) in an attempt to remove earwax.
  • If you do not have a damaged eardrum or tympanostomy (ventilation) tubes in your ears, put a couple of drops of rubbing alcohol in your ears after bathing or swimming.

FAQs

What is a staph infection?

Any infection that is caused by the Staphylococcus bacteria is referred to as a staph infection, including ear infections that are caused by Staphylococcus aureus.

What does a staph infection look like?

A staph infection in the ear usually makes the ear canal appear red, inflamed, and swollen. The skin of the ear may look dry and flaky.

Staph frequently causes skin infections that look like a rash or a scab that frequently sloughs off with yellow drainage.

How do you cure a staph infection with antibiotics?

Staph infections need to be treated with the appropriate antibiotic to prevent complications such as malignant otitis externa. However, you can aid the recovery process by keeping the infection site clean and using a warm compress to improve blood circulation to the area.

How should you clean your house after a staph infection?

Many cleaning products that contain bleach are effective against Staphylococcus aureus. These should have a list of germs that they will kill on the label.

Follow the directions on the disinfectant label carefully. Make sure that you know the amount of time that the product needs to remain on a surface to be effective.

How can you tell if a staph infection is getting better?

Less pain and decreased redness and swelling are signs that a staph infection is starting to clear up. The infection site should also decrease in size (as opposed to spreading).

How serious are staph infections?

How serious a staph infection is or may become depends on many factors, including the strain of the bacteria causing the infection and your underlying health.

Most staph infections can be cured, but some resist antibiotics, which allows the infection to spread and damage tissue or nerves. In severe cases, the infection enters the bloodstream and causes sepsis.

The best way to prevent a staph infection from becoming serious is to get treatment as soon as possible and to follow the treatment your doctor prescribes carefully.

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8 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. MedlinePlus. Swimmer’s ear. Updated June 9, 2021.

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  7. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. MRSA. Updated June 26, 2019.

  8. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Methicillin resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) cleaning and disinfection. Updated February 27, 2019.