Swimmer’s ear is one of the most common conditions that affect the ear. It’s an infection that occurs in the outer ear canal, which spans from the pinna (the outer ear) to the tympanic membrane (the eardrum). Medically referred to as “otitis externa”, swimmer’s ear can occur in people of all ages, from babies to the elderly.
What Causes Swimmer’s Ear?
Despite the name, swimmer’s ear isn’t the direct result of swimming. The infection occurs when moisture or debris makes its way into the ear and gets trapped in the outer areas. That trapped moisture creates the ideal breeding ground for bacterial growth, and that bacteria can eventually invade the skin within the ear canal.
While yes, swimming can certainly occur as a result of swimming (hence the name), as mentioned, it can occur when moisture or debris gets trapped within the ear canal; for example, while bathing, showering, or whenever you’re exposed to a moist environment.
Other factors that can lead to swimmer’s ear include:
- Exposure to bacteria that can be found in polluted water, hot tubs, or uncleaned bathtubs.
- Exposure to chemicals, such as hair spray or hair dye, that make their way into the ear canal.
- Excessive use of cotton swabs to clean the ear.
- Putting fingers or any other foreign object into your ears that can lead to damage the thin layer of skin that lines the ear canal.
- Conditions (such as seborrhea or eczema), cuts, or abrasions that allow bacteria to penetrate into the delicate skin of the ear canal.
Symptoms of Swimmer’s Ear
There are several symptoms that can be associated with swimmer’s ear. Typically, the onset of symptoms are mild, but the longer the infection progresses, the worse the symptoms will become.
Mild symptoms of swimmer’s ear include:
- Itching within the ear canal
- Mild redness within the interior of the ear
- Mild pain or discomfort that worsens when the outer ear (the auricle or pinna) is pulled on or when the small bump on the front of the ear (the tragus) is pushed on
- A slight amount of clear, odorless discharge
The symptoms that can be associated with a moderate swimmer’s ear infection can include:
- Worsened, more intensive itching
- Increased pain
- Increased redness within the interior of the ear
- Increased drainage of fluid
- A feeling of fullness within the interior of the ear as a result of a partial blockage within the ear canal caused by fluid, swelling, and debris
- Mild to moderate hearing loss or muffled hearing
In the more advanced stages of swimmer’s ear, the symptoms can include:
- Intense pain within the ear that can extend out to the face, down the neck, and along the side of the head
- A total blockage of the ear canal
- Redness and/or swelling of the outer ear
- Swollen lymph nodes in the neck
- A fever
What are the Complications of Swimmer’s Ear?
If left untreated, a swimmer’s ear infection will worsen and can lead to a number of serious complications.
These complications can include:
- Hearing loss, which can be persistent
- Recurrent ear infections (medically known as chronic otitis externa), and without proper treatment, the infection can become persistent
- Damage to the bone and cartilage within the ear, as the infection could possibly spread to the base of the skull, and into the brain and/or cranial nerves. Those who suffer from diabetes and the elderly, in particular, are at an increased risk of this type of complication that can be associated with swimmer’s ear
Treatment for Swimmer’s Ear
The onset of any of the symptom’s that are associated with swimmer’s ear should be taken seriously and need to be treated as soon as possible in order to prevent the onset of a worsening infection and further and more severe symptoms. Rubbing alcohol applied into the ear.
- A mixture of Epsom salt, rubbing alcohol, and hot water applied into the ear
- Using a blow dryer (on the lowest setting) to apply heat to the affected ear
- Pouring a small amount of hydrogen peroxide in the ear
If symptoms are severe or worsen, schedule an appointment with your doctor.