Swimmer’s ear, formally known as acute external otitis, is an infection of the outer ear canal (the portion outside the eardrum). It was named “swimmer’s ear” because it’s very often brought on by water staying in the outer ear following swimming, which creates a moist environment that encourages bacterial growth. Swimmer’s ear may also be caused by putting your fingers, cotton swabs, or other objects into your ears, because these items can scrape or injure the delicate skin lining the ear canal, making it prone to infection. It is important to be familiar with the outward symptoms of swimmer’s ear, because although it can be simply treated, not treating it can lead to serious complications.
Swimmer’s ear develops due to the ear’s innate protection mechanisms (which include the glands that secrete ear wax or cerumen) becoming overwhelmed. Moisture in the ears, sensitivity reactions, and scratches to the lining of the ear canal can all encourage the growth of bacteria, and lead to infection. The activities that increase your risk of developing swimmer’s ear include swimming (naturally, particularly in untreated water such as that found in lakes), aggressive cleaning of the ear canal with Q-tips, use of devices that sit inside the ear such as “ear buds” or hearing aids, and allergies.
Mild signs of swimmer’s ear include itching within the ear, minor pain or discomfort made worse by pulling on the ear, redness, and a colorless liquid draining from the ear. In more moderate cases, these problems may develop into more intense itching, pain, and discharge of pus. Extreme symptoms include severe pain (sometimes extending to other areas of the face, neck and head), fever, redness or swelling of the outer ear or lymph nodes, and actual blockage of the ear canal. If left untreated, complications from swimmer’s ear can be extremely serious. Complications might include short-term hearing loss, long-term ear infections, deep tissue infections which may spread to other parts of the body, and bone or cartilage loss. That is why, if you have experienced any of these signs or symptoms, even if minor, see your health care provider.
Doctors usually diagnose swimmer’s ear after a visual examination with a lighted instrument termed an otoscope. The doctor will also check at the same time to see if there is any damage to the eardrum itself. Doctors generally treat swimmer’s ear first by cleaning the ears carefully, and then by prescribing eardrops to eliminate the infection. If the infection is serious, your doctor can also prescribe antibiotics taken orally to help fight it.
You can help to avoid swimmer’s ear by keeping your ears dry after swimming or bathing, by avoiding swimming in untreated water, and by not inserting foreign objects in your ears in an attempt to clean them.