What is swimmer's ear?
Bo Borch-Christensen, MD, is a pediatrician on staff at Banner Thunderbird Medical Center. His office can be reached at (602) 235-9155.
Question: What exactly is swimmer’s ear? Who is at risk of getting swimmer’s ear and how is it treated?
Answer: Swimmer’s ear, or external otitis, is a common outer ear condition that occurs when the ear canal becomes irritated, generally due to infection and inflammation.
The infection gets its name due to the fact that it frequently affects people who spend a lot of time in the water. When water gets trapped in the ear, it allows bacteria, and sometimes fungi, to penetrate the tissues of the ear canal, causing an infection. Because children have narrow ear canals that trap moisture easily, they are most susceptible to swimmer’s ear. Along with excess water, breaks or lacerations to the skin lining the ear canal can also attract bacteria and fungi.
Symptoms often begin with itching and a sensation of fullness in the ear. Muffled hearing, pain, drainage, and redness and swelling of the ear canal are also common. Occasionally, a low grade fever may be present.
Most incidences of swimmer’s ear are mild and self-resolving, but can sometimes become more serious. Fortunately, proper treatment can prevent the infection from worsening. There are four key steps in the treatment of swimmer's ear: gentle cleaning of the ear canal, which may be difficult if the ear is tender; treating inflammation and infection with prescribed ear drops; over-the-counter pain relievers for pain control; and, limiting progression of the infection.
Of course, avoiding swimmer’s ear is the best treatment. Some preventive measures you can take include gently shaking and drying your ears after swimming, avoiding further trauma to the ear canal, wearing molded ear plugs in the water, and using over-the-counter ear drops as directed.
Contact your physician if you have additional questions or concerns.
Reviewed July 2010