Malignant external otitis: insights into pathogenesis, clinical manifestations, diagnosis, and therapy

Am J Med. 1988 Sep;85(3):391-8. doi: 10.1016/0002-9343(88)90592-x.


Malignant external otitis is an infection of the external ear canal, mastoid, and base of the skull caused by Pseudomonas aeruginosa. The condition occurs primarily in elderly patients with diabetes mellitus. Current theories on pathogenesis and anatomic correlations are reviewed. Severe, unrelenting otalgia and persistent otorrhea are the symptomatic hallmarks of the disease, whereas an elevated erythrocyte sedimentation rate is the only distinctive laboratory abnormality. Iatrogenic causes such as administration of broad-spectrum antibiotics and aural irrigation may play a predisposing role in high-risk populations. The disease can result in cranial polyneuropathies (with facial nerve [VII] paralysis being the most common) and death. The mainstay of treatment is administration of antipseudomonal antibiotics for four to eight weeks. Recurrence is common, and mortality remains at about 20 percent despite antibiotic therapy. Given the increasing longevity of diabetic patients, the frequency of this disease is increasing. Internists, family practitioners, and ambulatory care physicians must now be cognizant of the presenting symptoms, while infectious disease specialists and otolaryngologists need to be appraised of strides in diagnosis and therapy. The role of surgery should be minimized. Use of new diagnostic radiologic modalities and new antipseudomonal antibiotics discussed in this review should lead to improved outcome.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Humans
  • Otitis Externa* / diagnosis
  • Otitis Externa* / etiology
  • Otitis Externa* / therapy
  • Pseudomonas Infections* / diagnosis
  • Pseudomonas Infections* / therapy
  • Terminology as Topic