Acute external otitis is an infection of the outer ear canal – the portion outside your eardrum. Virtually all people recognize it by its common name – swimmer’s ear. The familiar name swimmer’s ear comes from the fact that the problem is commonly linked to swimming. Anytime water collects in the outer ear it creates a moist atmosphere in which bacteria may flourish. But moisture isn’t the only culprit. Acute external otitis can also be attributable to damaging the delicate skin lining the ear canal by stiking fingers, Q-tips or other objects in the ear. It is important to be aware of the signs and symptoms of swimmer’s ear, because although it is easily treated, not treating it can result in severe complications.
Swimmer’s ear arises because the ear’s innate defenses (glands that secrete a waxy, water-repellent substance called cerumen) are overloaded. Moisture in the ears, sensitivity reactions, and scratches to the ear canal lining can all promote bacterial growth, and cause infection. Common activities that raise your chance of swimmer’s ear naturally include swimming – particularly in lakes or other untreated water reservoirs – the use of in-ear devices such as hearing aids or “ear buds,” and overly aggressive cleaning of the ear with Q-tips or other objects.
Itching inside the ear, slight discomfort or pain that is made worse by tugging on the ear, redness and an odorless, clear fluid draining from the ear are all signs and symptoms of a mild case of swimmer’s ear. Moderate symptoms include increased itching and pain and discharge of pus-like liquids. In extreme cases of infection, swimmer’s ear can result in severe pain that radiates to other regions of the face, neck, or head, redness or swelling of the outer ear or lymph nodes, fever, and obstruction of the ear canal. If untreated, complications from swimmer’s ear can be quite serious. Complications might include short-term hearing loss, long-term ear infections, deep tissue infections which may spread to other parts of the body, and cartilage or bone loss. Consequently, if you have experienced any of these signs or symptoms, even if mild, see your doctor.
During your appointment, the doctor will look for indications of swimmer’s ear with an otoscope, which allows them to look deep into your ear. The doctor will also check to determine if there is any harm to the eardrum itself. If you definitely have swimmer’s ear, the standard treatment includes cautiously cleaning the ears and using prescription eardrops to fight the bacteria. If the infection is widespread or serious, the physician may also prescribe oral antibiotics.
You can help to avoid swimmer’s ear by drying your ears after bathing or swimming, by avoiding swimming in untreated water, and by not inserting foreign objects in your ears in an attempt to clean them.