Earlier this month the USA cheered on Michael Phelps, Katie Ledecky, and many other swimming stars in the Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, so now feels like the perfect time to discuss an aural issue that often affects swimmers: otitis externa. Fittingly known as “swimmer’s ear,” otitis externa is an infection of the outer ear canal. Treating swimmer’s ear is simple, but that doesn’t mean the condition isn’t unpleasant or serious. Learn more about the causes and symptoms below, but be sure to call your audiologist straightaway if you believe you have swimmer’s ear.
What Is Swimmer’s Ear?
Swimmer’s ear is a condition characterized by inflammation, irritation, or infection in the outer ear. It typically occurs when moisture is trapped in the ear, causing bacteria or fungal organisms to spread. Swimmer’s ear often affects swimmers, children, teenagers, and people with eczema.
Moisture trapped in the ear canal typically causes swimmer’s ear. This may occur following a bath, shower, swimming session, dip in a hot tub, or simply being in a moist environment. The trapped water causes the bacteria that already exist in the ear canal to multiply, resulting in an infection. Often, the infection will begin when a break in the skin of the outer ear or canal allows in this bacteria or fungi. A variety of factors can contribute to the development of swimmer’s ear, including the following:
- Polluted water or excessive bacteria in hot tubs
- Certain chemicals present in hair spray and hair dye
- Excessive cleaning of the ear canal
- Damage to the skin of the ear canal, such as a cut
- Skin conditions like eczema, seborrhea dermatitis, and psoriasis
- Devices inserted into the ear (ear plugs, hearing aids, ear buds, etc.)
- Sand or small debris in the ear
- A narrow ear canal, which traps water more easily
Most people with swimmer’s ear first notice the condition when they experience pain or itching in their ear. However, all of the following features are symptoms of swimmer’s ear:
- Itching inside the ear
- Pain that increases when you tug on the outer ear
- Pain that spreads to the neck, head, and face
- Feeling that your ear is “blocked” or “full”
- Drainage of fluid or pus
- Ringing in the ear
- Swollen lymph nodes
- Decreased or muffled hearing
- Redness in or around your ear
- Swelling of the ear
Contact your audiologist if you experience any signs of swimmer’s ear, even if they are mild. If your symptoms are severe (fever, severe pain, hearing loss), contact your doctor right away or visit the emergency room.
Treating swimmer’s ear promptly and properly is vital, as the condition can have serious consequences if left untreated. First, the infection may spread and worsen, and you could contract recurring ear infections (also known as chronic otitis externa). Next, you may experience temporary hearing loss, which should disappear when the infection clears up. Finally, acute swimmer’s ear can spread, reaching the skull, brain, or cranial nerves and causing bone and cartilage damage. This disorder, known as malignant otitis externa, most often affects older adults and people with diabetes.
Since most cases of swimmer’s ear are caused by trapped moisture, be sure to care for your ears after you swim or bathe. Consider using earplugs when you swim and ear drops afterward (to dry out the ear canal). Dry your ears using a hair dryer or towel after swimming. In addition, if a skin condition afflicts your ear, causing itchiness, flakiness, scales, or excessive earwax, you may need to have your ears regularly cleaned by a professional. Finally, do not use cotton swabs to clean out your ears. This can push items further into your ear, remove protective earwax, and irritate the ear canal, all of which may lead to an infection.
Treating Swimmer’s Ear
Contact an Audiologist
Is your ear feeling itchy or painful? Whether you suspect swimmer’s ear or not, contact an audiologist for help. After asking about your symptoms and examining your ear to check for redness and swelling, the audiologist may take a sample of any present fluid or discharge to test for bacteria or fungus. With their knowledge and expertise, the audiologist can quickly diagnose the issue and prescribe a treatment.
Luckily, treating swimmer’s ear is quite simple and only takes about a week or so. In the early stages (so long as the patient does not have a perforated eardrum), ear drops can be used to inhibit bacterial or fungal growth and reduce inflammation. Severe swimmer’s ear may require topical antibiotics, which you can apply directly to your ear. Other common treatments include a sponge or wick (soaked in antibiotic drops), oral antibiotics, and pain medication. After treatment, you may need to schedule a follow-up appointment with your audiologist to ensure that the infection is completely gone.
If you need help treating swimmer’s ear or another auditory issue, please contact the Sound Relief Hearing Center if you live in or around Denver, Colorado. We are independently owned, so we always have the patient’s best interests at heart, and our state-of-the-art technology ensures that our patients receive top-notch treatments. With our unparalleled excellence in the hearing industry, our dedication to patient satisfaction, and our commitment to helping people control and conquer their hearing issues, you can count on Sound Relief Hearing Center for support and assistance.
To learn more about us, please browse our website, visit our Youtube channel, or give us a call at 720-259-9962. You can also schedule an appointment online to meet with one of our audiologists. We look forward to hearing from you!