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Swimmer’s ear is a type of ear infection called otitis externa. It happens when the tube between your outer ear and eardrum becomes inflamed. Sometimes, the inflammation can spread to the pinna, the part of your ear that you can see on the side of your head.
This can cause pain and discomfort for less than 6 weeks or for more than 3 months if it becomes a chronic condition.
Swimmer’s ear can be caused by different things, such as bacteria or fungi. The most common bacteria that cause it are Pseudomonas aeruginosa and Staphylococcus aureus.
It is called so because it’s a common condition among people who spend a lot of time in the water, such as swimmers.
Overall, there are three types of ear infections: inner, middle, and outer. Outer ear infections are usually caused by something that irritates the ear canal, such as eczema, water, or wearing earplugs. (1)
If you think you have a swimmer’s ear, it’s important to know the symptoms and seek medical help if needed. Read on to find out.
Signs and Symptoms of Swimmer’s Ear
Typically, patients with swimmer’s ear have the following clinical presentations or signs: (2)
Causes and Risk Factors of Swimmer’s Ear
Swimmer’s ear is a type of ear infection that can affect anyone, but it’s more common in people who spend a lot of time in the water, such as swimmers.
Water can get trapped in the ear canal and create a moist environment that makes it easier for bacteria or fungi to grow and cause an infection.
Other factors that can increase the risk of a swimmer’s ear include:
- Use of cotton swabs
- Use of earplugs
- Eczema or psoriasis
- Obstruction in the ear canal
- Chemotherapy or radiotherapy
Normally, your ear canal has hair follicles and glands that produce a substance called cerumen, which helps protect your ear from infections.
However, when something disrupts the natural pH balance and protective factors in the ear canal, inflammation and infection can ensue.
This can be caused by factors such as damage to the ear canal, loss of protective wax, accumulation of moisture, and bacterial growth. (1)
Treatment for Swimmer’s Ear
Various agents are involved in the management of the swimmer’s ear.
The treatment for acute swimmer’s ear consists of painkillers, cleansing the external auditory canal, and topical use of antiseptic and antimicrobial agents. But these agents should only be used when advised by a doctor after a proper medical diagnosis.
Your doctor may suggest the following: (3)
- Local antibiotic and corticosteroid formulations have been established to be helpful.
- Topical antimicrobial treatments show an elevated cure rate.
- Corticosteroid developments reduce swelling, erythema, and secretions.
- Oral antibiotics are suggested if the infection has spread beyond the ear canal or in patients with inadequately controlled diabetes mellitus or immunosuppression.
What Not to Do?
Here are some things you should avoid doing to keep your ears healthy:
- Don’t let water or shampoo get inside your ear. Water can create a moist environment that makes it easier for bacteria or fungi to grow and cause an infection.
- Don’t put anything inside your ear to remove earwax, such as cotton buds or your finger. This can push the earwax further into your ear and even damage your eardrum.
- Avoid using decongestants or antihistamines for ear infections. Recent scientific research has shown that these medications don’t really help with ear infections, so it’s better to avoid them.
Can Swimmer’s Ear Be Life Threatening?
Swimmer’s ear is not life threatening unless it is malignant. Malignant or necrotizing otitis externa is a life-threatening illness that happens mostly in patients with suppressed immune systems and older patients with diabetes mellitus.
Malignant or necrotizing otitis externa is an extension of the external ear infection into the temporal bone, and it is commonly caused by Pseudomonas aeruginosa in around 90% of the cases. Early diagnosis is vital as it has a high mortality rate. (4)
Complications of Swimmer’s Ear
Acute otitis externa hinders the daily routine of roughly 25% of the affected individuals. It can further progress to chronic otitis externa and, in severe cases, lead to canal stenosis and hearing loss.
- Myringitis (infection of the eardrum)
- Perichondritis (inflammation of the cartilage of the outer ear)
- Facial cellulitis (bacterial skin infection)
- Osteomyelitis (bone infection)
When to See a Doctor
Experts recommend that you seek medical attention from a doctor if you experience symptoms such as a stiff neck, loss of balance, fever, severe ear pain, pink swelling behind the ear, a crooked smile, or vomiting during an ear infection.
It is also advisable to visit a doctor if you have a long-term medical condition such as diabetes; heart, lung, kidney, or neurological disease; or a weakened immune system due to chemotherapy.
If you have an earache that does not improve after 3 days or other symptoms such as severe sore throat or dizziness, you should be cautious. Additionally, if you notice hearing loss or changes in hearing, it is essential to see an ENT specialist as soon as possible.
Swimmer’s ear is an ear infection of the outer ear canal, which stretches out from your eardrum to the outside. It’s often caused when water that stays in your ear for a long period of time creates a damp setting that supports the growth of bacteria.
It is often caused by daily habits such as putting fingers, cotton swabs, or other things in the ears, causing injuries to the thin layer of skin that lines the ear canal. If you believe you suffer from swimmer’s ear, consult your healthcare provider immediately.