Swimmer’s ear, or “otitis externa”, is a painful type of ear infection that involves the ear canal and typically occurs when water gets trapped inside the ear. Because the ear canal is dark and warm, normally present bacteria (or fungi) can easily multiply and cause an infection.
Anyone is susceptible, but children are particularly prone to this type of infection since their ear canals are narrower. We hope that by explaining the causes and symptoms you can avoid the discomfort of swimmer’s ear, or seek prompt treatment when needed.
What causes swimmer’s ear?
Swimmer’s ear has a few primary causes:
- Trapped moisture from bathing/showering, trips to the pond/lake/beach/swimming pool or from moist or humid environments.
- Contact with excessive bacteria present in hot tubs or polluted water.
- Scratches or cuts within the ear i.e. from aggressive cleaning.
- Damage to the skin of the ear canal i.e from skin conditions such as eczema, psoriasis or seborrhea.
- Contact with certain chemicals such as hairspray or hair dye.
Symptoms of Swimmer’s Ear
Initial symptoms of swimmer’s ear are usually mild. However, if an infection goes untreated, symptoms may progressively worsen. Symptoms will often first appear as itching and redness, resulting in the ear then becoming inflamed and painful. Pain can become severe, and is often worsened when the ear is touched or moved, i.e. when chewing or lying on a pillow. It is common to have jaw pain, as there are lots of nerves linking the base of the brain through the ear canal, the jaw, and down to the diaphragm. Other symptoms include:
- A stuffy or plugged-up feeling in the affected ear.
- Fluid draining from the affected ear.
- Decreased or muffled hearing.
- Fever and swollen lymph nodes can occur in severe cases.
How to Prevent Swimmer’s Ear
The aim is to keep your ears as dry as possible. Consider wearing ear plugs and a bathing cap/wetsuit hood when you are in the water. After swimming or washing, turn your head side to side and pull the earlobes in different directions to help any excess water drain out. After draining, gently dry your ears with a towel. Do not try to clean your ears by inserting a foreign object like a cotton swab.
Treating Swimmer’s Ear
See a doctor as soon as you can if you suspect swimmer’s ear. A fluid sample may be taken when you are seen. You will likely be given antibiotic ear drops, as these reduce inflammation and inhibit bacterial/fungal growth.
If after a few days symptoms do not improve, return to your doctor. There could be a blockage preventing the medication working or oral antibiotics may be needed.
Please note, without treatment, infection can continue. This can cause recurring ear infections (chronic otitis externa). Diabetics and older adults are also at higher risk of dangerous complications. Infection can spread to the base of your skull, brain, or cranial nerves, causing bone and cartilage damage (malignant otitis externa).
Swimmer’s ear is a very common but preventable infection. Following treatment, hearing should return to normal. To further protect yourself make sure you have regular check ups and evaluations with your hearing specialist. Contact us today if you suspect that you may have swimmer’s ear, or to learn more information.