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Swimmer's Ear

Swimmer's Ear

Swimmer's ear is inflammation, irritation, or infection of the outer ear and ear canal. The medical term for swimmer's ear is otitis externa.

Swimmer's ear may be acute or chronic.

Causes, incidence, and risk factors

Swimmer's ear is fairly common, especially among teenagers and young adults. It is occasionally associated with middle ear infection(otitis media) or upper respiratory infections such as colds.

Swimming in polluted water can lead to swimmer's ear. Water-loving bacteria such as Pseudomonas, as well as other bacteria or fungi (in rare cases), can cause ear infections.

Other causes of swimmer's ear include:

Trying to clean wax from the ear canal, especially with cotton swabs or small objects, can irritate or damage the skin.

Long-term (chronic) swimmer's ear may be due to:

Symptoms

Signs and tests

The doctor will perform a physical exam, which includes looking inside the ears. The ear, including the ear canal, appears red and swollen. The skin inside the ear canal may be scaly or shedding.

Touching or moving the outer ear increases the pain. The eardrum may be difficult for the doctor to see because of a swelling in the outer ear. Or, the eardrum may have a hole in it. This is called a perforation.

The doctor may take a sample of fluid from the ear and send it to a lab so any bacteria or fungus can be identified.

Treatment

Ear drops containing antibiotics are typically given, usually for 10 to 14 days. If the ear canal is very swollen, a wick may be applied in the ear to allow the drops to travel to the end of the canal. Your doctor or nurse can show you how to do this.

Other treatments may include:

People with chronic swimmer's ear may need long-term or repeated treatments to avoid complications.

Placing something warm against the ears may reduce pain.

Expectations (prognosis)

When treated properly, swimmer's ear usually gets better.

Complications

The infection may spread to other areas around the ear, including the skull bone. In elderly people or those who have diabetes, a severe infection called malignant otitis externa is a possibility. Malignant otitis externa is treated with high-dose antibiotics given through a vein.

Calling your health care provider

Call for an appointment with your health care provider if:

Prevention

Protect ears from further damage.