Acute external otitis or otitis externa – commonly called swimmer’s ear – is an infection that affects the outer ear canal. The infection is known as swimmer’s ear because it frequently comes about due to moisture staying in the ears after swimmingwhich provides a moist environment that encourages the growth of microbes. Swimmer’s ear can also be caused by poking your fingertips, cotton swabs, or other foreign objects into the ears, because these items can scratch or injure the sensitive skin lining the ear canal, making it prone to infection. It is important to be familiar with the signs and symptoms of swimmer’s ear, because although it is easily treated, not treating it can lead to severe complications.

Swimmer’s ear occurs because the ear’s innate defenses (glands that secrete a waxy, water-repellent substance termed cerumen) have become 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. Activities that raise 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, use of in-ear devices such as ear buds or hearing aids, and allergies.

Mild symptoms of swimmer’s ear include itching inside the ear, slight pain or discomfort made worse by tugging on the ear, redness, and a colorless fluid draining from the ear. Moderate symptoms include increased itching and pain and discharge of pus-like liquids. 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 areas of the body. Therefore if you experience even the milder indicators of swimmer’s ear, it is a good idea to see your doctor immediately.

Swimmer’s ear can be diagnosed in an office visit after a visual examination. The doctor will also check at the same time to determine if there is any damage to the eardrum itself. If you in fact have swimmer’s ear, the standard treatment includes cautiously cleaning the ears and using prescription eardrops to fight the bacteria. For extensive, serious infections a course of antibiotics taken orally may be prescribed.

Remember these three tips to avoid contracting swimmer’s ear.

  1. Dry your ears completely after swimming or showering.
  2. Don’t swim in open, untreated bodies of water.
  3. Do not insert any foreign objects in your ears in an attempt to clean them.