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Acute external otitis or otitis externa is an infection of the outer ear canal – the portion outside your eardrum. Most people know it by its common name – swimmer’s ear. The popular name swimmer’s ear originates from the fact that the problem is commonly linked to swimming. Anytime moisture remains in the outer ear it creates a moist environment where bacteria may grow. But water isn’t the only culprit. An outer ear infection may also be attributable to harming the sensitive skin lining the ear canal by placing fingertips, Q-tips or other foreign objects in the ear. Even though swimmer’s ear is usually very easily treated, you need to learn and recognize the symptoms, because untreated it can lead to severe problems.

Swimmer’s ear arises because the ear’s innate defenses (glands that secrete a waxy, water-repellent substance termed cerumen) have become overloaded. Moisture in the ears, sensitivity reactions, and scratches to the ear canal lining can all encourage bacterial growth, and lead to infection. Certain activities will increase your chance of contracting swimmer’s ear. Swimming, use of ‘in-ear’ devices (including hearing aids or ear buds), overly aggressive cleaning of the ear canal and allergies all raise your likelihood of infection.

Mild signs of swimmer’s ear include itching within the ear, slight discomfort or pain worsened by tugging on the ear, redness, and a colorless liquid draining from the ear. In more moderate cases of infection, these problems may progress to more severe itching, pain, and discharge of pus. Extreme cases of swimmer’s ear are accompanied by symptoms such as fever, severe pain which may radiate into other parts of the head, neck and face, swelling redness of the outer ear or lymph nodes, and possibly blockage of the ear canal. If left 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 areas of the body, and cartilage or bone loss. So if you experience even the milder indicators of swimmer’s ear, it is a wise decision to visit your health care provider immediately.

Swimmer’s ear can be diagnosed in an office visit after a visual examination performed with an otoscope. The doctor will also check to determine 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 counter the infection. If the infection has become extensive or serious, the doctor may also prescribe oral antibiotics.

To prevent swimmer’s ear, dry your ears completely after swimming or showering, avoid swimming in untreated water resources, and don’t place foreign objects into your ears to clean them.