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.