Acute external otitis or otitis externa – more commonly called swimmer’s ear – is an infection that strikes the outer ear canal. The popular name “swimmer’s ear” originates from the fact that the problem is frequently associated with swimming. When moisture remains in the outer ear it provides a moist atmosphere where microbes may grow. Swimmer’s ear is also caused by scratching or harming the sensitive skin lining the ear canal by inserting your fingers, Q-tips, or other foreign objects to clean them. You should be aware of the outward symptoms of swimmer’s ear, because even though it is simply treated, not treating it can lead to serious complications.
Swimmer’s ear happens as the result of the ear’s innate defenses (including the glands that secrete cerumen or ear wax) becoming overwhelmed. Bacteria can get a foothold and begin flourish in the ears for numerous reasons including excess moisture or damage to the lining of the ear canal. 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 objects.
The most typical 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 fluid. Severe 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. If untreated, complications from swimmer’s ear can be extremely serious. Complications may include short-term hearing loss, long-term ear infections, deep tissue infections which may spread to other areas of the body, and cartilage or bone loss. So if you experience even the milder indicators of swimmer’s ear, it’s a smart idea to visit your health care provider right away.
Swimmer’s ear can be diagnosed in an office visit after a visual exam. Doctors will also check that your eardrum hasn’t been ruptured or damaged. Physicians usually treat swimmer’s ear by first cleaning the ears carefully, and then by prescribing eardrops to fight the infection. If the infection is serious, your physician can also prescribe antibiotics taken orally to help fight it.
You can help to prevent swimmer’s ear by drying your ears after bathing or swimming, by avoiding swimming in untreated water, and by not inserting foreign objects in your ears in an attempt to clean them.