Acute external otitis or otitis externa – more commonly known as swimmer’s ear – is an infection that strikes the outer ear canal, the area outside your eardrum. It is termed “swimmer’s ear” because it quite often arises due to moisture staying in the ears after swimming; this provides a moist environment that promotes microbial growth. Swimmer’s ear may also be triggered by stiking your fingertips, Q-tips, or other objects into the ears, because they can scrape or damage the sensitive ear canal lining, leaving it open to infection. Luckily for us swimmer’s ear is readily treated. If left untreated, swimmer’s ear can cause severe complications so it is important to identify the signs and symptoms of the infection.

Swimmer’s ear happens as the result of the ear’s innate protection mechanisms (including the glands that secrete ear wax or cerumen) becoming overloaded. Too much moisture in the ear, damage to the lining of the ear canal, and sensitivity reactions can all create an advantageous environment for the growth of bacteria, and lead to infection. Certain activities will raise your risk of contracting swimmer’s ear. Swimming, use of inside-the-ear devices (including hearing aids or ear buds), overly aggressive cleaning of the ear canal and allergies all raise your likelihood of infection.

The most typical symptoms of swimmer’s ear are itching in the ear canal, minor discomfort that is made worse by tugging on your ear, a mild redness inside the ear, and mild drainage of a clear, odorless fluid. Moderate symptoms include increased itching and pain and discharge of pus-like liquids. Extreme cases of swimmer’s ear are accompanied by symptoms such as fever, severe pain which may radiate into other parts of the head, neck and face, swelling redness of the outer ear or lymph nodes, and possibly blockage of the ear canal. If untreated, complications from swimmer’s ear can be very serious. Complications may include short-term hearing loss, long-term ear infections, deep tissue infections which may spread to other parts of the body, and bone or cartilage loss. So if you experience even the milder symptoms of swimmer’s ear, it’s a good idea to see your health care provider right away.

Doctors usually diagnose swimmer’s ear after a visual examination with an otoscope. Doctors will also make certain that your eardrum hasn’t been damaged or ruptured. If swimmer’s ear is the problem, it is usually treated by first cleaning the ears with care, and then prescribing antibiotic or antifungal eardrops to fight the infection. For widespread, severe infections a course of antibiotics taken orally may be prescribed.

To prevent swimmer’s ear, dry your ears thoroughly after swimming or showering, avoid swimming in untreated water resources, and don’t insert foreign objects into your ears to clean them.