Swimmer’s ear, formally referred to as acute external otitis, is an infection that develops in the outer ear canal (the area outside the eardrum). The popular name “swimmer’s ear” originates from the fact that the problem is commonly linked to swimming. Anytime water persists in the outer ear it provides a moist environment where bacteria may flourish. But water isn’t the only culprit. Acute external otitis may also be caused by harming the sensitive skin lining the ear canal by poking fingers, cotton swabs or other foreign objects in the ear. It is important to be familiar with the signs and symptoms of swimmer’s ear, because although it is simply treated, not treating it can result in severe complications.

Swimmer’s ear develops due to the ear’s innate defenses (which include the glands that secrete cerumen or ear wax) becoming overwhelmed. A buildup of moisture in the ear, damage to the lining of the ear canal, and sensitivity reactions can all create a favorable environment for bacterial growth, and result in infection. Specific activities will raise your likelihood of getting swimmer’s ear. Swimming, use of inside-the-ear devices (including hearing aids or ear buds), overly aggressive cleaning of the ear canal and allergies all raise your risk of infection.

Mild symptoms of swimmer’s ear include itching within the ear, slight discomfort or pain worsened by tugging on the ear, redness, and a colorless fluid draining from the ear. Severe itching, heightened pain and discharge of pus suggest a moderate case of swimmer’s ear. 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. Complications of untreated swimmer’s ear can be serious, including temporary hearing loss, bone and cartilage loss, long-term ear infections, and the spread of deep-tissue infections to other parts of the body. That is why, if you have any of these signs or symptoms, even if minor, see your doctor.

Swimmer’s ear can be diagnosed in an office visit after a visual exam performed with an otoscope. The doctor will also check at the same time to see if there is any damage to the eardrum itself. If you in fact have swimmer’s ear, the conventional treatment consists of carefully cleaning the ears and using prescription eardrops to combat the bacteria. If the infection is really serious, your physician may also prescribe oral antibiotics to help combat it.

Remember these 3 tips to avoid getting swimmer’s ear.

  1. Dry your ears thoroughly after swimming or showering.
  2. Don’t swim in open, untreated water.
  3. Don’t place any foreign objects in your ears to try to clean them.