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Swimmer's Ear

What Is Swimmer's Ear?

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Updated May 16, 2009

Swimmer's Ear

Swimmer's Ear

Photo © A.D.A.M.

Swimmer's ear, or otitis externa, is an infection of the outer ear. It is called swimmer's ear because it is common among swimmers. When water gets trapped in the ear when swimming or bathing, bacteria or other germs in the water can enter the ear along with it, where they will thrive due to the warm and moist conditions and cause this condition.

Pseudomonas aeruiginosa is the most common bacteria responsible for swimmer's ear. Swimmer's ear is not the same as otitis media, an ear infection commonly seen in children.

Symptoms of Swimmer's Ear

Symptoms of swimmer's ear may include the following, although they will vary for each person:

  • ear redness
  • itchiness inside the ear
  • flaking of the skin on the ear
  • drainage from the ear which may be pus
  • pain when moving the head or touching the ear
  • fever

Diagnosing Swimmer's Ear

If you suspect that you may have swimmer's ear, see your doctor. You may also want to check out the About.com Symptom Checker to get a better sense of if your particular symptoms could be due to swimmer's ear or perhaps something else.

Diagnosing swimmer's ear is not usually complex. If you have been exposed to water recently and your symptoms coincide, the doctor will physically examine the ear and may use an otoscope to see inside of the ear canal, if it's not too swollen. This may be slightly painful for some individuals, as touching the ear can cause discomfort. However, the doctor should be gentle and the examination won't last long.

Treating Swimmer's Ear

Swimmer's ear can be painful and should be treated by a physician. Sometimes fluid and other debris, including pus, will have to be cleaned out by the physician.

Swimmer's ear is often treated with antibiotic ear drops. Sometimes steroidal ear drops are used in conjunction with antibiotic ear drops to reduce inflammation and swelling.

To use the drops, gently pull back the ear to straighten the ear canal. If the infection is severe, the ear may be too swollen to use the drops, though. In this case, a wick (a small thin strip of sterilized, absorbent cloth that gets inserted into the ear), which the doctor will saturate with the antibiotic, will have to be placed inside the ear. When the swelling goes down, the wick will fall out on its own, and the drops can be given the traditional way. After your visit, it is important to use the antibiotic medications prescribed to you exactly as indicated to avoid resistant strains of the germ.

Pain from swimmer's ear can often be managed using over-the-counter acetaminophen or ibuprofen. It may also be helpful to use a heating pad over the ear. Severe pain may rarely have to be treated with prescription pain medications.

Swimmer's ear is generally responsive to treatment and not serious if it is treated early. Untreated swimmers ear can lead to serious complications, including infection of surrounding structures such as the bones of the face, and malignant otitis externa.

Preventing Swimmer's Ear

You can do several things prevent swimmer's ear. Some recommendations:
  • Wear earplugs to prevent water from entering the ear when you swim.
  • Do not insert anything into the ear, including cotton swabs.
  • Gently dry your ears using a blow dryer on the coolest setting after bathing or swimming.
  • Avoid swimming in polluted water.

Some sources recommend using a home remedy involving alcohol and vinegar, the theory being that this will inhibit bacterial growth. However, alcohol can dry out the ear, causing the skin to become chapped and fragile. This may inadvertently lead to a bacterial infection or make an already infected ear worse. Talk to your doctor before using such a remedy.

Sources:

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "Swimmer's Ear" Otitis Externa. Accessed: May 11, 2009 from http://www.cdc.gov/healthyswimming/swimmers_ear.htm

Medline Plus Medical Encyclopedia. Swimmer's Ear. Accessed: May 11, 2009 from http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/000622.htm

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