The medical term for a fungal infection of the outer ear canal is otomycosis. Although the condition is not serious, it does produce irritating symptoms. In addition, once you experience a fungal infection of the ear, it will likely become chronic. Several different types of fungus can infect the ear, and proper diagnosis and treatment are the key to keeping your ears healthy.
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Types of Fungus
To determine the specific fungus that is causing the infection, your doctor can swab a sample and then swipe the sample onto Sabouraud dextrose agar (a specific growth medium) and allow it to incubate at 30°C. Four species of fungus typically found in a fungal ear infection.: Aspergillus fumigates, Aspergillus niger, Candida albicans and Candida tropicalis.
Symptoms of a fungus infection of the outer ear canal include inflammation, scaly skin, pruritus (itching sensation) and severe discomfort. A chronic and untreated infection can result in severe inflammation, visible masses of debris containing the fungal hyphae (which are protruding filaments allowing the fungus to grow), suppuration (which is the production of pus) and pain. The debris can cause blockage of the ear and result in tinnitus (ringing of the ear) or hearing impairment.
Initial diagnosis is based on the doctor's assessment of symptoms. The doctor will then collect a sample of the visible debris using sterile swabs, sterile forceps or a syringe filled with saline. Examination of the sample under a microscope will reveal the presence of fungal elements like hyphae or spores. This provides the clinical diagnosis of a fungal infection, but to determine the exact species, the sample must be allowed to grow as described above.
Note: It is best to visit an ear specialist to receive an accurate diagnosis. Symptoms of a fungal ear infection can be similar to a bacterial ear infection. The ear is a delicate environment containing a balance of both bacteria and fungus and if antibiotics are administered in the absence of a bacterial infection, the good bacteria are killed, allowing the fungus to thrive.
The first step to treatment is to remove the debris that may be causing blockage but also helps to keep the environment moist, promoting further growth. The best way to remove the debris is to aspirate it out. This should be performed by a doctor who can use an otoscope to make sure it is completely removed. Once the debris is removed, the ear canal can be treated with a topical anti-fungal medication prescribed by your doctor.
Never flush your ear to remove the debris. This only adds more moisture, allowing the fungus to thrive.
Fungi like to grow in areas that are humid and warm, therefore the ear canal is a perfect environment. Fungal infections are more likely found in men than in women. This is attributed to the fact that in general, men spend more time outdoors and are therefore exposed to fungal spores which live in dirt and decaying organic material. Outdoor labourers are often infected. Those living in dusty environments with high humidity and heat are especially prone to fungal infections in the ears.
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