Acute external otitis or otitis externa is an infection of the outer ear canal – the part outside your eardrum. Virtually all people recognize it by its common name – swimmer’s ear. The infection is known as swimmer’s ear because it frequently develops as the result of moisture staying in the ears after swimming; this provides a wet environment that promotes microbial growth. But moisture isn’t the only source. Acute external otitis may also be the result of damaging the delicate skin lining the ear canal by poking fingers, cotton swabs or other foreign objects in the ear. Thankfully swimmer’s ear is easily cured. If left untreated, swimmer’s ear can cause severe complications therefore it is vital that you recognize the signs and symptoms of the condition.
Swimmer’s ear arises because the ear’s natural defenses (glands that secrete a water-repellant, waxy substance termed cerumen) are overwhelmed. Moisture in the ears, sensitivity reactions, and scratches to the ear canal lining can all encourage the growth of bacteria, and cause infection. Activities that increase your likelihood of developing swimmer’s ear include swimming (particularly in untreated water such as lakes), aggressive cleaning of the ear canal with Q-tips or other objects, use of in-ear devices such as “ear buds” or hearing aids, and allergies.
Mild signs of swimmer’s ear include itching inside the ear, slight pain or discomfort made worse by pulling on the ear, redness, and a colorless liquid draining from the ear. Severe itching, increased pain and discharge of pus indicate a moderate case of swimmer’s ear. Extreme symptoms include severe pain (sometimes radiating to other areas of the head, face, and neck), fever, swelling or redness of the outer ear or lymph nodes, and actual obstruction of the ear canal. Complications may include short-term hearing loss, long-term infection of the outer ear, cartilage and bone loss, and deep-tissue infections that can spread to other areas of the body and lower the effectiveness of your immune system. Consequently, if you have any of these signs or symptoms, even if minor, see your health care provider.
Doctors can usually diagnose swimmer’s ear after a visual exam with a lighted instrument called an otoscope. Physicians will also make certain that your eardrum has not been damaged or ruptured. If swimmer’s ear is the problem, it is typically treated by first cleaning the ears carefully, and then prescribing antifungal or antibiotic eardrops to counter the infection. For widespread, serious infections a course of antibiotics taken orally may be prescribed.
Just remember these three tips to avoid contracting swimmer’s ear.
- Dry your ears thoroughly after showering or swimming.
- Avoid swimming in untreated, open bodies of water.
- Don’t insert any foreign objects in your ears in an effort to clean them.