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 popular name “swimmer’s ear” derives from the fact that the infection is frequently linked to swimming. Anytime moisture remains in the outer ear it provides a damp environment in which bacteria can grow. Swimmer’s ear can also be the result of scraping or harming the sensitive skin lining the ear canal by inserting your fingertips, cotton swabs, or other objects to clean them. Fortunately swimmer’s ear is easily treated. If left untreated, swimmer’s ear may cause severe complications therefore it is important to identify the symptoms of the condition.

Swimmer’s ear arises because the ear’s innate defenses (glands that secrete a water-repellant, waxy coating termed cerumen) are overloaded. Bacteria can get a foothold and begin flourish in the ears for various different reasons such as surplus moisture or scratches to the ear canal lining. Particular activities will increase your likelihood of getting swimmer’s ear. Swimming, use of ‘in-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 inside the ear, minor pain or discomfort made worse by tugging on the ear, redness, and a colorless fluid draining from the ear. In more moderate cases, these symptoms may develop into more intense itching, pain, and discharge of pus. Extreme symptoms include intense pain (sometimes radiating to other areas of the head, face, and neck), fever, redness or swelling of the outer ear or lymph nodes, and actual obstruction of the ear canal. If untreated, complications from swimmer’s ear can be very serious. Complications may include temporary hearing loss, long-term ear infections, deep tissue infections which may spread to other areas of the body, and cartilage or bone loss. The chance of severe complications implies that you should visit a doctor when you first suspect swimmer’s ear – even a mild case.

Swimmer’s ear can be diagnosed in an office visit after a visual examination. They will also check to determine if there is any damage to the eardrum itself. If swimmer’s ear is the problem, it is typically treated first by cleaning the ears very carefully, and then prescribing antibiotic or antifungal eardrops to fight the infection. If the infection is extensive or serious, the doctor may also prescribe antibiotics taken orally.

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