Acute external otitis or otitis externa is an infection of the outer ear canal – the portion outside the eardrum. Most people know it by its common name – swimmer’s ear. This type of infection was given the name “swimmer’s ear” because it’s frequently a result of water staying in the outer ear after swimming, which provides a damp environment which encourages microbial growth. Swimmer’s ear may also be triggered by poking your fingertips, Q-tips, or other objects into the ears, because these items can scrape or injure the sensitive skin lining the ear canal, leaving it open to an opportunistic infection. It is important to be familiar with the symptoms of swimmer’s ear, because even though it can be simply treated, not treating it can lead to serious complications.

Swimmer’s ear

happens due to the ear’s innate protection mechanisms (which include the glands that secrete cerumen or ear wax) becoming overwhelmed. Moisture in the ears, sensitivity reactions, and scrapes to the ear canal lining can all encourage the growth of bacteria, and lead to infection. Common activities that increase your chance of swimmer’s ear naturally include swimming – particularly in lakes or other untreated water reservoirs – the use of devices that sit inside the ear such as hearing aids or ear buds, and aggressive cleaning of the ear with cotton swabs or other foreign objects.

Itching inside the ear, mild discomfort or pain which is worsened by tugging on the ear, redness and a clear, odorless fluid draining from the ear are all signs and symptoms of a minor case of swimmer’s ear. Extreme itching, increased pain and discharge of pus suggest 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. Complications can include temporary hearing loss, long-term infection of the outer ear, cartilage and bone loss, and deep-tissue infections that may spread to other parts of the body and reduce the effectiveness of the immune system. That is why, if you have any of these signs or symptoms, even if minor, visit your doctor.

During your office visit, the doctor will look for signs of swimmer’s ear with an otoscope, which allows them to peer deep into your ear. The doctor will examine the eardrum in both ears to make sure that there is not a rupture or other damage. If swimmer’s ear is the problem, it is usually treated first by cleaning the ears carefully, and then prescribing antifungal or antibiotic eardrops to fight the infection. For widespread, severe infections a course of antibiotics taken orally may be prescribed.

Just remember these 3 tips to avoid getting swimmer’s ear.

  1. Dry your ears thoroughly after swimming or showering.
  2. Avoid swimming in open, untreated water.
  3. Don’t insert any foreign objects in your ears in an attempt to clean them.