Swimmer’s ear, technically known as acute external otitis or otitis externa, is an infection which develops in the outer ear canal (the portion outside your eardrum). This type of infection was named “swimmer’s ear” because it’s often a result of water staying in the outer ear after swimming, which provides a damp environment which supports bacterial growth. But water is not the only culprit. Acute external otitis can also be attributable to harming the sensitive skin lining the ear canal by putting fingers, Q-tips or other objects in the ear. Although swimmer’s ear can be easily treated, you need to know and recognize the signs and symptoms, because left untreated it can lead to serious problems.

When the ear’s natural defenses are overloaded, the result may be swimmer’s ear. Excess moisture in the ear, scratches to the lining of the ear canal, and sensitivity reactions can all result in an ideal environment for the growth of bacteria, and result in infection. Common activities that raise your risk of swimmer’s ear naturally include swimming – especially in lakes or other untreated water reservoirs – the use of in-ear devices such as hearing aids or ear buds, and overly aggressive cleaning of the ear with cotton swabs or other foreign objects.

Itching inside the ear, mild discomfort or pain that is made worse by pulling on the ear, redness and a clear, odorless fluid draining from the ear are typical symptoms of a mild swimmer’s ear infection. Extreme itching, heightened pain and discharge of pus indicate a moderate case of swimmer’s ear. Extreme cases of swimmer’s ear are accompanied by symptoms such as fever, severe pain which may radiate into other parts of the head, neck and face, swelling redness of the outer ear or lymph nodes, and possibly blockage of the ear canal. Complications can include temporary hearing loss, long-term infection of the outer ear, bone and cartilage loss, and deep-tissue infections that may spread to other parts of the body and lower the effectiveness of your body’s immune system. Consequently, if you have any of these symptoms, even if minor, visit your doctor.

Swimmer’s ear can be diagnosed in an office visit after a visual exam

performed with an otoscope. They will also check to determine if there is any harm to the eardrum itself. Physicians usually treat swimmer’s ear by first cleaning the ears thoroughly, and then by prescribing eardrops to remove the infection. For extensive, serious infections a course of antibiotics taken orally may be prescribed.

Remember these three tips to avoid getting swimmer’s ear.

  1. Dry your ears thoroughly after swimming or showering.
  2. Avoid swimming in untreated, open bodies of water.
  3. Do not insert any foreign objects in your ears in an attempt to clean them.
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