Acute external otitis or otitis externa is an infection of the outer ear canal – the portion outside your eardrum. Virtually all people know it by its common name – swimmer’s ear. The familiar name swimmer’s ear originates from the fact that the problem is frequently linked to swimming. Anytime moisture remains in the outer ear it creates a damp atmosphere where bacteria can flourish. But water isn’t the only culprit. Acute external otitis may also be caused by damaging the delicate skin lining the ear canal by stiking fingers, Q-tips or other objects in the ear. Even though swimmer’s ear can be very easily treated, you should know and recognize the symptoms of it, because left untreated it can result in severe complications.
Swimmer’s ear happens due to the ear’s innate defenses (which include the glands that secrete ear wax or cerumen) becoming overwhelmed. A buildup of moisture in the ear, scratches to the ear canal’s lining, and sensitivity reactions can all provide an advantageous environment for the growth of bacteria, and lead to infection. Common activities that increase your likelihood of swimmer’s ear naturally include swimming – especially in lakes or other untreated waters – the use of devices that sit inside the ear such as hearing aids or ear buds, and aggressive cleaning of the ear with cotton swabs or other objects.
Mild symptoms of swimmer’s ear include itching inside the ear, slight pain or discomfort made worse by pulling 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. 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. If left untreated, complications from swimmer’s ear can be very serious. Complications might include temporary hearing loss, long-term ear infections, deep tissue infections which may spread to other parts of the body, and cartilage or bone loss. That is why, if you have any of these symptoms, even if mild, visit your doctor.
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 isn’t a rupture or other injury. Physicians generally treat swimmer’s ear first by cleaning the ears carefully, and then by prescribing eardrops to remove the infection. If the infection is serious, your doctor can also prescribe antibiotics taken orally to help overcome it.
Remember these 3 tips to avoid contracting swimmer’s ear.
- Dry your ears thoroughly after bathing or swimming.
- Avoid swimming in untreated, open water.
- Don’t insert any foreign objects in your ears to try to clean