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Acute external otitis – more commonly known as swimmer’s ear – is an infection that strikes the outer ear canal, the section outside your eardrum. This type of infection was given the name “swimmer’s ear” because it is very often brought on by water remaining in the outer ear following swimming, which provides a moist environment that supports microbial growth. Swimmer’s ear can also be triggered by poking your fingertips, cotton swabs, or other objects into the ears, because these items can scratch or injure the sensitive skin lining the ear canal, leaving it open to an opportunistic infection. Even though swimmer’s ear is usually easily treated, you should know and recognize the signs and symptoms of it, because untreated it can cause severe problems.

Swimmer’s ear happens due to the ear’s innate defenses (including the glands that secrete ear wax or cerumen) becoming overwhelmed. Too much moisture in the ear, scratches to the ear canal’s lining, and sensitivity reactions can all create an ideal environment for the growth of bacteria, and result in infection. Particular activities will increase your chance of contracting swimmer’s ear. Swimming, use of ‘in-ear’ devices (including hearing aids or ear buds), aggressive cleaning of the ear canal and allergies all increase your likelihood of infection.

Itching inside the ear, mild pain or discomfort that is made worse by pulling on the ear, redness and an odorless, clear liquid draining from the ear are all symptoms of a minor case of swimmer’s ear. In more moderate cases, these problems may develop into more severe itching, pain, and discharge of pus. Extreme symptoms include severe pain (occasionally extending to other parts of the head, face, and neck), fever, redness or swelling of the outer ear or lymph nodes, and actual blockage of the ear canal. If untreated, complications from swimmer’s ear can be very serious. Complications may include temporary hearing loss, long-term ear infections, deep tissue infections which may spread to other parts of the body, and cartilage or bone loss. The potential for severe complications implies that you should see a doctor when you first suspect swimmer’s ear – even a minor case.

Physicians usually diagnose swimmer’s ear after a visual exam with a lighted instrument termed an otoscope. The doctor will also check at the same time to see if there is any harm to the eardrum itself. If swimmer’s ear is the problem, it is generally treated by first cleaning the ears very carefully, and then prescribing antibiotic or antifungal eardrops to fight the infection. For extensive, severe infections a course of oral antibiotics may be prescribed.

You can help to avoid swimmer’s ear by keeping your ears dry after swimming or bathing, by avoiding swimming in untreated water, and by not inserting foreign objects in your ears in an attempt to clean them.