Swimmer’s ear (otitis externa) is an ear infection caused when bacteria found in water penetrates the ear canal. Occasionally, fungi or viruses may also cause this condition. Swimmer’s ear usually only affects one ear and is most common among children, young adults and people who suffer from chronic middle ear infections.
Causes Of Swimmer’s Ear
Swimmer’s ear derives its name from the fact that prolonged exposure to water from swimming, bathing, showering, or increased humidity may cause water to become trapped in the ear canal, resulting in this condition. Excessive moisture provides an environment conducive to bacterial growth and sets the stage for infection of the ear canal. Swimmer’s ear can also be triggered by a cut or abrasion, or any skin condition like eczema that allows bacteria to penetrate the skin.
Normally, the ear is protected by the wax, known as cerumen, secreted by its glands and by its natural downward slope. When the area has been cut, however, or when excess moisture accumulates there, the body’s natural defenses are not sufficient to keep infection from occurring. Certain sensitivity reactions, such as allergies to hair products or jewelry, may increase the possibility of swimmer’s ear.
Symptoms Of Swimmer’s Ear
Early symptoms of swimmer’s ear include pain or itching of the outer ear and a feeling that the ear is stuffed. If the infection is allowed to progress, the patient may experience a worsening of pain that occurs in the face or neck as well as the ear. Pus may begin to drain from the ear and the patient may develop a fever and swollen lymph nodes in the neck. A doctor should always be consulted for swimmer’s ear that doesn’t resolve quickly. While swimmer’s ear is not in itself a serious condition, left untreated it can lead to serious consequences including temporary hearing loss, recurring infections and bone and cartilage damage.
Diagnosis And Treatment Of Swimmer’s Ear
Swimmer’s ear is diagnosed by a physical examination of the ear with an otoscope. The ear canal commonly appears red and swollen from the infection. Depending on the severity of the problem, the doctor may recommend a thorough cleaning, known as lavage or irrigation, or may prescribe oral or topical antibiotics. Usually the patient with swimmer’s ear is advised to avoid swimming and to bathe or shower with care during the period of treatment. Keeping the ears dry and being careful to prevent foreign objects from entering the ear canal can help protect against future infections. Ear drops may also be useful in preventing swimmer’s ear.
A sensation of stuffiness in the ears may be quickly attributed to allergies or head congestion. The ears are truly impressive in their structure and function, which can make it difficult to identify the true cause of symptoms. Dr. Daneshrad is an experienced, friendly sinus specialist and ENT who helps patients get to the heart of the matter when it comes to the ears, nose, and throat. With the right care, you can better understand what may be causing symptoms and, most importantly, what to do about it.
What Happens If Swimmer’s Ear Isn’t Treated?
The outer ear canal runs from your eardrum to the opening of your ear. Infection here is usually responsive to proper conservative treatment. If the infection is not treated when necessary, there is a risk of temporary hearing impairment. Swelling and inflammation in the outer ear can cause muffled hearing. Rarely, swimmer’s ear can result in chronic infection. This usually occurs under very specific conditions, such as concurrent allergic dermatitis or allergic reaction to antibiotic ear drops. There is also a rare risk that the infection could spread to the important bone and cartilage structures around the outer ear, or become systemic. In most cases, swimmer’s ear is easily treated with eardrops or oral antibiotics. If the symptoms of this infection do not improve after steps to keep the ear dry for several days, contact our office to schedule an appointment with Dr. Daneshrad.
What Should You Avoid Doing When You Have Swimmer’s Ear?
It is important to keep the affected ear dry until the symptoms of swimmer’s ear resolve. The doctor may advise you to place cotton balls in your ears when applying face or hair products. Doing so can prevent unnecessary irritation from chemicals. While it is not necessary to plug the ears when showering or washing your hair, you should dry your ears thoroughly after getting wet. To do so, you can gently wipe the outer ear and the opening of the ear canal with a soft, dry towel. It can also be helpful to use a blow-dryer set on low to “air dry” the ear canal.
How Do You Prepare For Swimmer’s Ear Treatment?
If you notice the signs of swimmer’s ear or your symptoms do not improve after a few days of keeping the ear dry, contact our office. There is nothing you need to do to prepare for treatment. The common remedy for this condition is prescription antibiotic ear drops or oral antibiotics.
Is Treatment For Swimmer’s Ear Painful?
No. If you are prescribed ear drops to resolve the infection in your outer ear, the application should be painless and may even be soothing. Oral antibiotics carry a very slight risk of causing stomach upset. However, your pharmacist may advise against taking this medication with milk. When you pick up your prescription, talk to your pharmacist about proper use to ensure that the medication works as quickly as possible.
Are There Any At-Home Treatments For Swimmer’s Ear?
In addition to keeping the ears dry, you can use warm compresses to ease the discomfort of swimmer’s ear. A heating pad can be applied directly against the affected ear for a few minutes at a time. Take care not to overheat the pad and to apply it slowly to thoroughly assess the amount of heat that is safe and comfortable.
You may find various home remedies for swimmer’s ear online. However, many of them are unproven. Those that can work, including applying diluted hydrogen peroxide into the ear canal, are recommended only for prevention, not for the treatment of outer ear infection. If you have the symptoms of swimmer’s ear, contact our office for proper treatment.
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