Swimmer’s ear, formally referred to as acute external otitis or otitis externa, is an infection of the outer ear canal (the section outside the eardrum). This type of infection was named “swimmer’s ear” because it is often caused by water staying in the outer ear after swimming, which provides a moist environment which encourages the growth of bacteria. But water is not the only culprit. Acute external otitis may also be the result of damaging the delicate skin lining the ear canal by poking fingertips, Q-tips or other objects in the ear. Luckily for us swimmer’s ear is readily cured. If untreated, swimmer’s ear may cause serious complications so it is essential to recognize the symptoms of the infection.
Swimmer’s ear crops up because the ear’s innate defenses (glands that secrete a waxy, water-repellent substance termed cerumen) are overwhelmed. A buildup of moisture in the ear, damage to the lining of the ear canal, and sensitivity reactions can all result in an ideal environment for bacterial growth, and result in infection. Activities that raise your chance of developing swimmer’s ear include swimming (especially in untreated water such as lakes), aggressive cleaning of the ear canal with cotton swabs, use of in-ear devices such as ear buds or hearing aids, and allergies.
The most common symptoms of swimmer’s ear are itching in the ear canal, mild pain that is made worse by tugging on your ear, a slight redness inside the ear, and mild drainage of an odorless, clear liquid. In more moderate cases, these symptoms may develop into more severe itching, pain, and discharge of pus. 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 of untreated swimmer’s ear may be serious, including short-term hearing loss, bone and cartilage loss, long-term ear infections, and the spreading of deep-tissue infections to other parts of the body. The possibility of serious complications means that you should visit a physician as soon as you suspect swimmer’s ear.
Doctors usually diagnose swimmer’s ear after a visual examination with a lighted instrument termed an otoscope. Physicians will also make sure that your eardrum has not been ruptured or damaged. If you definitely have swimmer’s ear, the standard treatment consists of cautiously cleaning the ears and using prescription eardrops to combat the infectious bacteria. If the infection is serious, your doctor may also prescribe antibiotics taken orally to help overcome it.
Just remember these three tips to avoid getting swimmer’s ear.
- Dry your ears completely after swimming or showering.
- Don’t swim in open, untreated bodies of water.
- Do not place any foreign objects in your ears in an attempt to clean them.