Acute external otitis is an infection of the outer ear canal – the part outside your eardrum. Virtually all people know it by its common name – swimmer’s ear. This type of infection was named “swimmer’s ear” because it’s very often brought on by water remaining in the outer ear after swimming, which creates a moist environment which supports the growth of bacteria. But water isn’t the only source. Acute external otitis can also be the result of harming the sensitive skin lining the ear canal by stiking fingertips, cotton swabs or other objects in the ear. You should be aware of the symptoms of swimmer’s ear, because even though it can be simply treated, not treating it can result in serious complications.

Swimmer’s ear develops as the result of the ear’s natural protection mechanisms (including the glands that secrete cerumen or ear wax) becoming overwhelmed. Moisture in the ears, sensitivity reactions, and scrapes to the lining of the ear canal can all encourage bacterial growth, and cause infection. The activities that raise your chance of developing swimmer’s ear include swimming (naturally, especially in untreated water such as lakes), aggressive cleaning of the ear canal with cotton swabs, use of devices that sit inside the ear such as ear buds or hearing aids, and allergies.

The most frequent signs and symptoms of swimmer’s ear are itching in the ear canal, minor pain that is made worse by pulling on your ear, a mild redness inside the ear, and minor drainage of an odorless, clear liquid. Moderate symptoms include more severe itching and pain and discharge of pus-like liquids. Extreme symptoms include severe pain (occasionally extending 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 left untreated, complications from swimmer’s ear can be quite serious. Complications might include temporary hearing loss, long-term ear infections, deep tissue infections which may spread to other parts of the body, and bone or cartilage loss. The possibility of serious complications implies that you should visit a doctor when you first suspect swimmer’s ear – even a minor case.

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 canal. Physicians will also check that your eardrum has not been damaged or ruptured. If you indeed have swimmer’s ear, the conventional treatment consists of carefully cleaning the ears and using prescription eardrops to combat the infectious bacteria. For extensive, serious infections a course of antibiotics taken orally may be prescribed.

Remember these three tips to avoid contracting swimmer’s ear.

  1. Dry your ears thoroughly after showering or swimming.
  2. Don’t swim in untreated, open bodies of water.
  3. Do not place any foreign objects in your ears in an effort to clean them.