Otitis externa, also known as swimmer’s ear, is a painful infection of the ear canal. Different from a regular ear infection, as ear infections typically infect the middle ear, swimmer’s ear happens when there is bacterial growth on the skin of the outer ear and ear canal. This usually happens from excessive water exposure, skin conditions (seborrhea or eczema), allergies, or from scratches or other forms of irritation in the ear canal, typically from chemicals or frequent instrumentation of the ear canal with fingers, cotton swabs, and/or hearing aids.
The common symptoms of swimmer’s ear include:
- Pain (in ear, can also extend to side of face or neck)
- Swelling (inside ear canal and on face)
- Drainage from the ear
- Ears feel full
- Ringing in ears
- Temporary hearing loss
- Enlarged lymph nodes of the neck
There are two types of swimmer’s ear, acute and chronic external otitis. Acute swimmer’s ear is a bacterial infection caused by strains of bacteria, Staphylococcus, Streptococcus, or Pseudomonas. While chronic swimmer’s ear is when the condition persists for more than four weeks or when it occurs frequently, at least four times a year. While medical treatment is typically needed if you have a case of swimmer’s ear, there are some things you can do to help prevent you from developing this painful condition in the first place:
- Use ear plugs while you are in the water
- If you are not washing your hair, use a shower cap when you are showering
- Use medicated ear drops to help absorb excess water
- Keep your ears clean and free of wax (this may require visits to your doctor)
- Dry ears thoroughly after water exposure
- Avoid placing objects inside ear
- Consult with your doctor before swimming if you have ear tubes, had recent ear surgery, or have a hole in your ear drum.
If you are suffering from swimmer’s ear it is important that you get it treated promptly. While swimmer’s ear usually isn’t a serious condition, complications can quickly occur if left untreated.