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Swimmer's Ear (Otitis Externa)

What is otitis externa?

Anatomy of the ear
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Otitis externa, also called swimmer's ear, is an inflammation, irritation, or infection of the external ear canal. The ear canal is the outer ear between the opening of the ear and the eardrum. When water remains trapped in the ear canal, bacteria or fungi can grow. Otitis externa is a painful condition that commonly affects swimmers. This is known as "swimmer's ear."

What causes swimmer's ear?

Many different factors can increase your chance of developing swimmer's ear. Besides trapped water, other possible causes of this infection include:

  • Being in warm, humid places

  • Harsh cleaning of the ear canal

  • Injury to the ear canal

  • Dry ear canal skin

  • Foreign body in the ear canal

  • Excess ear wax

  • Eczema and other forms of dermatitis

What are the symptoms of swimmer's ear?

The following are the most common symptoms of swimmer's ear:

  • Redness of the outer ear

  • Itching in the ear

  • Pain, especially when touching or wiggling the ear lobe, which may spread to the neck, face, or side of the head

  • Drainage from the ear

  • Swollen glands in the upper neck or around the ear

  • Swollen ear canal

  • Muffled hearing or hearing loss

  • Full or plugged-up feeling in the ear

  • Fever

The symptoms of swimmer's ear may look like other medical conditions or problems. Always consult your health care provider for a diagnosis.

Woman getting ready to swim

How is swimmer's ear diagnosed?

Swimmer's ear may be diagnosed with a complete medical history and physical exam. Your health care provider may use an otoscope, a lighted instrument that helps to examine the ear and to aid in the diagnosis of ear disorders. This will help your provider know if there is also an infection in the middle ear. Although this infection usually does not occur with swimmer's ear, some people may have both types of infections.

Your health care provider may also take a culture of the drainage from the ear to help determine proper treatment.

Treatment of swimmer's ear

Swimmer's ear, when properly treated by a health care provider, usually clears up within 7 to 10 days.

Treatment may include

  • Antibiotic eardrops

  • Corticosteroid eardrops (to help decrease the swelling)

  • Pain medication, your provider will ask you questions about how severe your ear pain is

  • Keeping the ear dry, as directed by your health care provider

Your health care provider will give you instructions on how eardrops should be applied. It is important to follow the instructions so that the proper dose of eardrops is delivered.

Preventing swimmer's ear

The following are some hints to help prevent swimmer's ear:

  • Use ear plugs for swimming or bathing.

  • After swimming, tilt your head to each side to help drain water.

  • You may also use a hair dryer set to low or cool setting. Hold the dryer at least 12 inches from your head. Wave the dryer slowly back and forth. Don't hold it still.

  • Don't clean inside the ear canal with cotton swabs to remove earwax. This can push dirt and ear wax further into the ear canal. This can cause irritation and infection.