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Acute external otitis or otitis externa – commonly known as swimmer’s ear – is an infection that strikes the outer ear canal. It was named “swimmer’s ear” because it is routinely a result of water remaining in the outer ear after swimming, which creates a moist environment which encourages bacterial growth. Swimmer’s ear may also be caused by sticking your fingers, cotton swabs, or other objects into your ears, because these items can scuff or injure the sensitive ear canal lining, making it prone to an opportunistic infection. You should be familiar with the outward symptoms of swimmer’s ear, because even though it is simply treated, not treating it can result in severe complications.

Swimmer’s ear occurs because the ear’s natural defenses (glands that secrete a waxy, water-repellent coating called cerumen) have become overwhelmed. Bacteria can get a foothold and begin flourish in the ears for a variety of different reasons including surplus moisture or scratches to the lining of the ear canal. The activities that raise your likelihood of developing swimmer’s ear include swimming (naturally, especially in untreated water such as that found in lakes), overly aggressive cleaning of the ear canal with cotton swabs, use of devices that sit inside the ear such as ear buds or hearing aids, and allergies.

Mild signs of swimmer’s ear include itching within the ear, minor pain or discomfort worsened by pulling on the ear, redness, and a colorless liquid draining from the ear. In more moderate cases of infection, these symptoms may progress to more intense itching, pain, and discharge of pus. In extreme cases of infection, swimmer’s ear can bring about severe 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. Side effects may include temporary hearing loss, long-term infection of the outer ear, cartilage and bone loss, and deep-tissue infections that may spread to other areas of the body and lower the effectiveness of your immune system. Therefore if you experience even the milder symptoms of swimmer’s ear, it’s a good idea to see your health care provider immediately.

During your appointment, the physician will look for signs of swimmer’s ear with an otoscope, which allows them to peer deep into your ear. The doctor will check the eardrum in both ears to make sure that there isn’t 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 antibiotic or anti-fungal ear drops to counter the infection. If the infection is extensive or serious, the doctor may also prescribe antibiotics taken orally.

To prevent swimmer’s ear, dry your ears completely after swimming or showering, avoid swimming in untreated water resources, and do not place foreign objects into your ears to clean them.