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. It was named “swimmer’s ear” because it’s frequently brought on by water remaining in the outer ear after swimming, which creates a damp environment which supports microbial growth. This condition is also the result of scraping or harming the delicate skin lining the ear canal by inserting your fingertips, Q-tips, or other foreign objects to clean them. You should be aware of the signs and symptoms of swimmer’s ear, because although it is simply treated, not treating it can result in severe complications.
When the ear’s natural protection mechanisms are overloaded, the result can be swimmer’s ear. Moisture in the ears, sensitivity reactions, and scratches to the lining of the ear canal can all encourage bacterial growth, and cause infection. Activities that increase your likelihood of developing swimmer’s ear include swimming (naturally, especially in untreated water such as lakes), aggressive cleaning of the ear canal with cotton swabs, use of in-ear devices such as ear buds or hearing aids, and allergies.
Itching inside the ear, mild discomfort or pain that is made worse by pulling on the ear, redness and an odorless, clear fluid draining from the ear are all symptoms of a minor case of swimmer’s 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. Side effects of untreated swimmer’s ear may be significant, including temporary hearing loss, cartilage and bone loss, long-term ear infections, and the spreading of deep-tissue infections to other parts of the body. The chance of severe complications means that you should visit a physician as soon as you suspect swimmer’s ear – even a minor case.
During your appointment, the doctor will look for indications of swimmer’s ear with an otoscope, which allows them to look deep into your ear canal. The doctor will examine the eardrum in both ears to make sure that there isn’t a rupture or other injury. Physicians usually treat swimmer’s ear by first cleaning the ears thoroughly, and then by prescribing eardrops to eliminate the infection. If the infection is extensive or serious, the physician may also prescribe antibiotics taken orally.
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 placing foreign objects in your ears in an attempt to clean them.