Swimmer’s ear, technically referred to as acute external otitis or otitis externa, is an infection of the outer ear canal (the section outside your eardrum). It was given the name “swimmer’s ear” because it is routinely a result of water remaining in the outer ear following swimming, which provides a moist environment which promotes microbial growth. It may also be triggered by putting your fingertips, cotton swabs, or other objects into your ears, because these items can scratch or damage the delicate ear canal lining, leaving it open to an opportunistic infection. It is important to be aware of the symptoms of swimmer’s ear, because although it can be easily treated, not treating it can result in serious complications.
When the ear’s innate protection mechanisms are overloaded, the result can be swimmer’s ear. Too much moisture in the ear, damage to the ear canal’s lining, and sensitivity reactions can all provide a favorable environment for the growth of bacteria, and result in infection. Everyday activities that increase your risk of swimmer’s ear naturally include swimming – especially in lakes or other untreated waters – the use of devices that sit inside the ear such as hearing aids or ear buds, and aggressive cleaning of the ear with cotton swabs or other objects.
The most typical symptoms of swimmer’s ear are itching in the ear canal, mild pain gets worse by tugging on your ear, a mild redness inside the ear, and minor drainage of an odorless, clear fluid. Severe itching, increased 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. Side effects of untreated swimmer’s ear may be serious, including temporary hearing loss, bone and cartilage loss, long-term ear infections, and the spreading of deep-tissue infections to other parts of the body. Therefore if you experience even the milder indicators of swimmer’s ear, it is a good idea to visit your health care provider immediately.
Swimmer’s ear can be diagnosed in an office visit after a visual examination performed with an otoscope. Physicians will also check that your eardrum has not been damaged or ruptured. Physicians generally treat swimmer’s ear first by cleaning the ears carefully, and then by prescribing eardrops to remove the infection. For widespread, severe infections a course of oral antibiotics may be prescribed.
You can help to protect against swimmer’s ear by drying your ears after swimming or bathing, by avoiding swimming in untreated water, and by not placing foreign objects in your ears in an attempt to clean them.