Ears & Hearing

Swimmer’s Ear

What is Swimmer’s Ear?

Swimmer’s ear is one of several types of infections of the outer ear (otitis externa).  Swimmer’s ear is specifically an acute infection of the ear canal, usually caused by a combination of a scratch in the thin skin of the ear canal and moisture in the ear canal.  It is considered a painful problem associated mostly with bacterial infection.  Yeast (or mold) can cause a variant of swimmer’s ear that may or may not be painful but may just be itchy and full; it can actually occur as a result of treating bacterial swimmer’s ear because of the medicines used.  Both of these are best treated with topical ear drops rather than with oral medication but sometimes oral medications need to be added.  In some cases, the pain from swimmer’s ear may require pain medications.  When these infections cause swelling significant enough to prevent ear drops from entering the normally narrow ear canal, a sponge-like wick may be placed to help draw the drops down into the ear canal.  These may be removed by the doctor or may fall out on their own.  They should only be left in for a few days as specified by the doctor.  In more severe cases, multiple visits may be needed in order to clean the ear canal of debris which is required for it to heal properly.  Untreated infections can lead to chronic issues including bone damage and narrowing of the ear canal; this can be even more severe in diabetics or other people with underlying medical conditions and can even spread to the brain.

There are several other outer ear infections or inflammatory conditions, all of which are different types of otitis externa. These include infections of the visible part of the ear which are uncommon or more common chronic skin conditions of the ear canal.  The latter may be due to allergy, eczema, or psoriasis and often cause itching and flaking but can lead to swimmer’s ear.

Keeping the ear free of moisture with a cotton ball in the shower, ear plugs while swimming, or even a hair dryer to dry the ears can help prevent swimmer’s ear.