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Swimmer’s ear, officially referred to as acute external otitis, is an infection of the outer ear canal (the portion outside the eardrum). The popular name “swimmer’s ear” comes from the fact that the infection is often associated with swimming. Anytime water remains in the outer ear it results in a moist environment where bacteria may grow. But moisture is not the only culprit. An outer ear infection may also be caused by harming the sensitive skin lining the ear canal by stiking fingers, cotton swabs or other foreign objects in the ear. Although swimmer’s ear is usually very easily treated, you should know and recognize the outward symptoms, because untreated it can cause severe problems.

Swimmer’s ear occurs because the ear’s natural defenses (glands that secrete a waxy, water-repellent film called cerumen) are overwhelmed. Moisture in the ears, sensitivity reactions, and scratches to the ear canal lining can all encourage bacterial growth, and cause infection. Certain activities will raise your likelihood of getting swimmer’s ear. Swimming, use of ‘in-ear’ devices (including hearing aids or ear buds), overly aggressive cleaning of the ear canal and allergies all raise your chances of infection.

Mild signs of swimmer’s ear include itching inside the ear, slight pain or discomfort worsened by tugging on the ear, redness, and a colorless fluid draining from the ear. In more moderate cases of infection, these symptoms 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 radiates to other parts of the face, neck, or head, swelling or redness of the outer ear or lymph nodes, fever, and obstruction of the ear canal. Side effects of untreated swimmer’s ear can be serious, 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 potential for severe complications means that you should visit a physician as soon as you suspect swimmer’s ear.

Swimmer’s ear can be diagnosed in an office visit after a visual examination. The doctor will examine the eardrum in both ears to make sure that there is not a rupture or other damage. If you in fact have swimmer’s ear, the conventional treatment includes carefully cleaning the ears and using prescription eardrops to combat the infectious bacteria. If the infection has become widespread or serious, the physician may also prescribe antibiotics taken orally.

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

  1. Dry your ears completely 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.