Acute external otitis or otitis externa – more commonly known as swimmer’s ear – is an infection that strikes the outer ear canal, the area outside the eardrum. It is termed swimmer’s ear because it routinely develops because of liquid staying in the ears after swimming which provides a wet environment which encourages the growth of microbes. It may also be brought on by sticking your fingers, Q-tips, or other foreign objects into the ears, because they can scratch or injure the sensitive ear canal lining, making it prone to infection. Fortunately swimmer’s ear is readily treated. If untreated, swimmer’s ear can cause severe complications so it is important to recognize the symptoms of the condition.
Swimmer’s ear occurs because the ear’s natural defenses (glands that secrete a water-repellant, waxy film called cerumen) have become overwhelmed. Bacteria establish themselves and begin to multiply in the ears for numerous different reasons including excess moisture or damage to the lining of the ear canal. The activities that increase your chance of developing swimmer’s ear include swimming (naturally, particularly in untreated water such as that found in lakes), overly aggressive cleaning of the ear canal with cotton swabs or other objects, use of devices that sit inside the ear such as “ear buds” or hearing aids, and allergies.
The most typical symptoms of swimmer’s ear are itching in the ear canal, mild pain gets worse by pulling on your ear, a mild redness inside the ear, and mild drainage of a clear, odorless fluid. In more moderate cases, these problems may progress to more intense 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. Side effects may include short-term 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 reduce the effectiveness of the body’s immune system. Therefore, if you have any of these signs or symptoms, even if mild, see your doctor.
During your appointment, the physician will look for signs of swimmer’s ear with an otoscope, which allows them to peer deep into your ear canal. The doctor will also check at the same time to see if there is any harm to the eardrum itself. Doctors generally treat swimmer’s ear first by cleaning the ears thoroughly, and then by prescribing ear drops to remove the infection. If the infection is serious, your doctor can also prescribe antibiotics taken orally to help combat it.
You can help to protect against swimmer’s ear by keeping your ears dry 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.