Swimmer’s ear, formally known as acute external otitis or otitis externa, is an infection that develops in the outer ear canal (the section outside the eardrum). The familiar name swimmer’s ear derives from the fact that the problem is frequently associated with swimming. When moisture collects in the outer ear it creates a moist atmosphere in which microbes may flourish. But water is not the only culprit. Acute external otitis can also be the result of harming the sensitive skin lining the ear canal by poking fingers, cotton swabs or other objects in the ear. Although swimmer’s ear is usually easily treated, you should learn and recognize the signs and symptoms, because untreated it can cause severe problems.

Swimmer’s ear arises because the ear’s innate defenses (glands that secrete a waxy, water-repellent substance called cerumen) are overwhelmed. Bacteria establish themselves and begin to grow in the ears for a variety of reasons including surplus moisture or damage to the lining of the ear canal. Everyday activities that raise your likelihood of swimmer’s ear naturally include swimming – particularly in lakes or other untreated waters – the use of devices that sit inside the ear such as hearing aids or “ear buds,” and overly aggressive cleaning of the ear with Q-tips or other objects.

The most typical signs and symptoms of swimmer’s ear are itching in the ear canal, mild discomfort that is made worse by tugging on your ear, a mild redness inside the ear, and mild drainage of a clear, odorless fluid. Moderate symptoms include more severe itching and pain and discharge of pus-like fluids. 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 may be serious, including short-term hearing loss, bone and cartilage loss, long-term ear infections, and the spreading of deep-tissue infections to other parts of the body. Therefore, if you have any of these symptoms, even if minor, see your doctor.

Swimmer’s ear can be diagnosed in an office visit after a visual exam

performed with a lighted viewing instrument called an otoscope. Doctors will also make certain that your eardrum has not been damaged or ruptured. If swimmer’s ear is the problem, it is usually treated by first cleaning the ears with care, and then prescribing antifungal or antibiotic eardrops to fight the infection. If the infection is serious, your doctor can also prescribe oral antibiotics to help fight it.

To avoid swimmer’s ear, dry your ears thoroughly after showering or swimming, avoid swimming in untreated water resources, and don’t place foreign objects into your ears to clean them.