Acute external otitis or otitis externa is an infection of the outer ear canal – the portion outside your eardrum. More people recognize it by its common name – swimmer’s ear. The popular name “swimmer’s ear” comes from the fact that the infection is commonly linked to swimming. When water remains in the outer ear it results in a damp environment where microbes can flourish. Swimmer’s ear may also be caused by putting your fingers, cotton swabs, or other foreign objects into the ears, because these items can scuff or injure the delicate ear canal lining, leaving it open to infection. Although swimmer’s ear can be very easily treated, you need to learn and recognize the signs and symptoms of it, because untreated it can lead to severe problems.
Swimmer’s ear crops up because the ear’s innate defenses (glands that secrete a water-repellant, waxy film termed cerumen) are overloaded. Bacteria establish themselves and start flourish in the ears for a variety of reasons such as excess moisture or damage to the ear canal lining. Common activities that increase your chance of swimmer’s ear naturally include swimming – particularly in lakes or other untreated waters – the use of in-ear devices such as hearing aids or ear buds, and overly aggressive cleaning of the ear with Q-tips or other objects.
The most frequent signs and symptoms of swimmer’s ear are itching in the ear canal, minor discomfort that is made worse by tugging on your ear, a slight redness inside the ear, and mild drainage of an odorless, clear fluid. In more moderate cases, these problems may progress to more severe itching, pain, and discharge of pus. In extreme cases of infection, swimmer’s ear can bring about intense pain that extends to other parts of the face, neck, or head, swelling or redness of the outer ear or lymph nodes, fever, and blockage of the ear canal. Complications of untreated swimmer’s ear can be serious, including short-term hearing loss, cartilage and bone loss, long-term ear infections, and the spreading of deep-tissue infections to other parts of the body. So if you experience even the milder indicators of swimmer’s ear, it’s a smart idea to visit your health care provider immediately.
During your office visit, the doctor will look for indications of swimmer’s ear with an otoscope, which allows them to look deep into your ear. Doctors will also make sure that your eardrum has not been damaged or ruptured. If swimmer’s ear is the problem, it is usually treated by first cleaning the ears carefully, and then prescribing antibiotic or antifungal eardrops to counter the infection. For extensive, severe infections a course of antibiotics taken orally may be prescribed.
To prevent swimmer’s ear, dry your ears thoroughly after showering or swimming, avoid swimming in untreated water resources, and do not place foreign objects into your ears to clean them.