Acute external otitis or otitis externa is an infection of the outer ear canal – the part outside your eardrum. Most people recognize it by its common name – swimmer’s ear. It is known as swimmer’s ear because it commonly occurs because of water staying in the ears after swimming; this creates a wet environment which encourages microbial growth. Swimmer’s ear may also be brought on by stiking your fingertips, cotton swabs, or other foreign objects into the ears, because they can scrape or injure the sensitive skin lining the ear canal, making it prone to an opportunistic infection. You should be aware of the symptoms of swimmer’s ear, because although it is simply treated, not treating it can lead to severe complications.
Swimmer’s ear occurs because the ear’s innate defenses (glands that secrete a water-repellant, waxy coating called cerumen) are overloaded. Excess moisture in the ear, scratches to the lining of the ear canal, and sensitivity reactions can all provide a favorable environment for the growth of bacteria, and result in infection. Certain activities will raise your chance of contracting swimmer’s ear. Swimming (obviously), use of inside-the-ear devices (including hearing aids), overly aggressive cleaning of the ear canal and allergies all increase your risk of infection.
Itching inside the ear, slight discomfort or pain which is worsened by pulling on the ear, redness and an odorless, clear fluid draining from the ear are all symptoms of a mild swimmer’s ear infection. In more moderate cases, these symptoms may develop into more intense itching, pain, and discharge of pus. 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 can be significant, including temporary hearing loss, bone and cartilage loss, long-term ear infections, and the spreading of deep-tissue infections to other parts of the body. The chance of serious complications implies that you should see a doctor when you first suspect swimmer’s ear – even a mild case.
During your appointment, the physician will look for signs of swimmer’s ear with an otoscope, which allows them to look deep into your ear canal. They will also check to see if there is any harm to the eardrum itself. If you indeed have swimmer’s ear, the normal treatment includes carefully cleaning the ears and using prescription eardrops to combat the infectious bacteria. For extensive, severe infections a course of antibiotics taken orally may be prescribed.
You can help to protect against swimmer’s ear by drying your ears after swimming or bathing, by avoiding swimming in untreated water, and by not inserting foreign objects in your ears in an attempt to clean them.