Otolaryngology, Head and Neck Surgery (Ear, Nose, and Throat)
Swimmer's Ear (Otitis Externa)
About Swimmer's Ear | Symptoms of Swimmer's Ear | Diagnosing Swimmer's Ear | Treating Swimmer's Ear | Caring for Swimmer's Ear | Preventing Swimmer's Ear
About Swimmer's Ear (Otitis Externa)
Otitis externa is an infection of the ear canal. Otitis externa is also called swimmer's ear.
Causes of Swimmer's Ear
Bacteria, and sometimes fungi, may cause the infection. It can result from an injury, as might occur if you use a cotton swab to clean your ears. It can also be caused by dirty water in your ears (for example, from a lake or ocean). Frequent showering or swimming can increase the risk of getting an infection. Otitis externa often occurs in the summer from swimming in polluted water. Hair spray or hair dye may irritate the ear canal as well.
Some people get otitis externa repeatedly, especially if they clean their ears too vigorously. People who have skin allergies also seem particularly prone to otitis externa.
Symptoms of Swimmer's Ear
- Itching (often the first symptom)
- Pain and swelling in ear canal
- Discharge from the ear, which may smell bad
- Crusting around the ear canal opening
- Sometimes swelling or pus may decrease your hearing.
The pain and swelling will go away gradually as the antibiotics or other medications take effect. Most cases of otitis externa clear up completely in five to seven days.
Diagnosing Swimmer's Ear
Your health care provider will examine your ears. He or she may take a sample of pus and culture it to identify the bacteria or fungus.
Treating Swimmer's Ear
Your provider will carefully clean and dry your ear. If your ear is very swollen, he or she may insert a wick soaked in an antibiotic into the ear to get the medicine into the infected area. You may need to put drops in your ear several times a day to keep the wick moist.
Your health care provider may prescribe an antibiotic in pill form if you have a severe infection. In addition, he or she may suggest a topical medication, such as cream or ointment, for some types of infection.
Caring for Swimmer's Ear
- Follow the treatment plan prescribed by your health care provider. Your health care provider will tell you how to take care of your ear and how to remove the wick.
- Keep water out of your ears until the infection is completely gone.
- Take baths instead of showers.
- Ask your health care provider how you should protect your ears when you wash your hair.
Preventing Swimmer's Ear
- Don't put anything in your ears that should not be put into them. This includes cotton swabs.
- Ask your health care provider if it might help to wear earplugs or use something such as lamb's wool to keep your ears dry when you swim and shower.
- Dry your ears carefully if you get water in them. You can use a hair dryer (on the warm setting) to help dry the water in the ear canal.
- Avoid any substance that may cause an allergic reaction of the ear canal skin. Read product labels carefully and ask your health care provider before you use chemicals or medications in the area around your ear.