Disclaimer: Not medical or professional advice. Always seek the advice of your physician.
Swimmer's ear, or otitis externa, is a painful infection occurring in the canal between the outer ear and the eardrum.
The ear consists of three main sections - the outer, middle, and inner ear. The outer ear includes the part we can see and the ear canal. The inner ear structure is called the cochlea (the organ of hearing). The middle ear is a cavity that contains auditory ossicles. The eustachian tube connects the middle ear cavity with the nasopharynx. The eardrum separates the middle ear from the outer ear.
Earwax is normally produced to protect the external auditory canal by trapping dust and dirt, as well as creating unfavorable conditions for bacteria. Water that stays in the ear after swimming or diving makes the environment humid and warm in the ear canal, which is a perfect place for pathogens to grow.
An ear canal infection is especially common in professional swimmers, which is why it is called swimmer's ear. However, the condition also peaks in the summer months, when people are more likely to go swimming in open water, full of bacteria and fungi. More than half of the patients are children. The inflammation can occur even after showering when water remains in the ear.
Swimmer's Ear Symptoms
Itching and a feeling of fullness in the ear are one of the first symptoms.
- ear pain when touching the auricle; the pain can get worse when chewing, talking, clenching the jaw;
- pulsing in the ear, sharp pain that radiates to the neck, eye, or teeth
- drainage from the ear
- hearing loss
- unpleasant smelling discharge
- swollen ear canal
- fever (rarely)
Can You Self Treat Swimmer's Ear?
No. As soon as you notice the first symptoms, you need to see a physician immediately. Only medical practitioners can confirm a diagnosis and determine what type of pathogen caused the disease. If it is not defined, the treatment can be inefficient and accelerate disease progression. Call your doctor's office to schedule an appointment if you see any signs of an ear infection!
Can Swimmer's Ear Cause Hearing Loss?
The symptoms of otitis externa often include partial hearing loss or tinnitus. However, all these unpleasant symptoms resolve over the course of anti-inflammatory treatment.
The most important thing is to see a physician promptly. Although the disease is not life-threatening, it causes severe pain. During an ear examination, the practitioner will use a special tool called an otoscope to look into the ear canal. The otoscope helps to evaluate the condition of the ear canal and eardrum. In some cases, the physician may order an ear swab examination to determine the cause of ear discharge.
How to Prevent Swimmer's Ear?
If you want to protect yourself and your loved ones from this unpleasant illness, you should follow these basic rules.
- Use ear plugs to prevent water from getting into your ears when swimming. Hearing protection is especially necessary for children as they have narrow ear canals, and water gets trapped more easily. Besides, young kids do not often notice or complain of fluid in the ear.
- Clean your ears carefully. The use of cotton swabs and other devices to clean ears or stop itching (especially with eczema, psoriasis, and seborrhea) can traumatize the skin of the ear canal. This increases the risk of developing otitis externa without getting water in the ear.
- Remove water from your ears after bathing: dry your outer ear with a towel, tilt your head downward and pull your earlobe up and down. If that doesn't work, use a hair dryer on the lowest setting to blow cool air into the ear.
Risk Factors for Swimmer's Ear
- Swimming or any other type of water exposure. Excess moisture can irritate the skin in the ear canal and destroy the earwax protective barrier.
- Injury to the ear canal. In particular, excessive or aggressive ear cleaning. It can lead to decreased production of earwax and injury to the skin, allowing microorganisms to get access to deeper tissues.
- Excessive earwax, foreign body, less often - devices that block the ear canal: hearing aids, earphones.
- Allergic contact dermatitis. Allergic reaction to shampoo, cosmetics, and metals used in some earrings.
- Skin allergic reactions.
- Radiation therapy. It may lead to ischemia (restriction in blood supply to tissues) of the auditory canals, changes in the production of earwax and its normal excretion.
Learn More About Warning Signs and Symptoms
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