Affecting the outer ear, swimmer’s ear (also called acute otitis externa) is a painful condition resulting from inflammation, irritation, or infection. These symptoms often occur after water gets trapped in your ear, with subsequent spread of bacteria or fungal organisms. Because this condition commonly affects swimmer’s, it is known as swimmer’s ear. Swimmer’s ear often affects children and teenagers, but can also affect those with eczema (a condition that causes the skin to itch), or excess earwax. Your doctor will prescribe treatment to reduce your pain and to treat the infection.
What causes swimmer’s ear?
A common source of the infection is increased moisture trapped in the ear canal, from baths, showers, swimming, or moist environments. When water is trapped in the ear canal, bacteria that normally inhabit the skin and ear canal multiply, causing infection of the ear canal. Swimmer’s ear needs to be treated to reduce pain and eliminate any effect it may have on your hearing, as well as to prevent the spread of infection.
What are the signs and symptoms?
The most common symptoms of swimmer’s ear are itching inside the ear and pain that gets worse when you tug on the auricle (outer ear). Other signs and symptoms may include any of the following:
Sensation that the ear is blocked or full
Intense pain that may spread to the neck, face, or side of the head
Swollen lymph nodes around the ear or in the upper neck. Redness and swelling of the skin around the ear
If untreated, complications may include:
Hearing loss. When the infection clears up, hearing usually returns to normal.
Recurring ear infections (chronic otitis externa). Without treatment, infection can continue.
Bone and cartilage damage (malignant otitis externa). Ear infections when not treated can spread to the base of your skull, brain, or cranial nerves. Diabetics and older adults are at higher risk for such dangerous complications.
How is swimmer’s ear treated?
Once we diagnose and confirm that our patient does not have a perforated eardrum (an eardrum with a hole in it) or a tympanostomy tube in the eardrum, treatment for the early stages of swimmer’s ear includes careful cleaning of the ear canal and use of ear drops that inhibit bacterial or fungal growth and reduce inflammation. Mildly acidic solutions containing boric or acetic acid are effective for early infections.
For more severe infections, we may prescribe antibiotics to be applied directly to the ear. If the ear canal is swollen shut, a sponge or wick may be placed in the canal so the antibiotic drops will enter the swollen canal more effectively. Pain medication may also be prescribed. If you have tubes in your eardrum, a non oto-toxic (do not affect your hearing) topical treatment should be used. Topical antibiotics are effective for infection limited to the ear canal. Oral antibiotics may also be prescribed if the infection goes beyond the skin of the ear canal.
Follow-up appointments are very important to monitor improvement or worsening, to clean the ear again, and to replace the ear wick as needed. Your otolaryngologist has specialized equipment and expertise to effectively clean the ear canal and treat swimmer’s ear. With proper treatment, most infections should clear up in 7-10 days.
We here at Ear, Nose and Throat Center Of New Jersey are ready to diagnose and treat swimmer’s ear.
Contact us at 973-773-9250 today to set an appointment with one of our ENT doctors.