Swimmer’s Ear, also known as otitis externa, is an infection of the outer ear canal usually caused by water getting trapped in the canal. The ear canal is warm and dark and therefore the perfect environment for an infection to start. You don’t have to be a swimmer to get Swimmer’s Ear and some people are more prone to this than others. Although it is more common in warm, moist climates, here in the Adirondack Mountains of New York, we still see our fair share of this sometimes-painful infection. At Placid Audiology in Lake Placid, we can make custom swim plugs for bathing and swimming for folks that suffer from this repeatedly.
What are the common signs of Swimmer’s Ear?
The symptoms of Swimmer’s Ear include itchiness inside the ear canal, mild pain or discomfort, and perhaps some drainage of fluid especially in the early stages. If the infection progresses to a moderate level, there is usually more intense itching and pain, and a thick yellowish foul-smelling discharge can occur. Mild hearing loss and a feeling of fullness is also common. Pain can be constant or only happen when you tug on your earlobe, pull up on the back of your ear, or push on the tragus (the little nub of skin near your ear canal, closest to your face). In an advanced stage the ear canal may be very swollen and completely block the hearing. In addition, severe pain can radiate to the face and neck, swelling in the lymph nodes of the neck may occur, and patients may even have a fever. I’ve seen patients brought to tears by the pain of this type of infection.
Can Swimmer’s Ear be prevented?
The only thing you are allowed to stick in your ear is your elbow, and since that is impossible (unless you are a contortionist), don’t put anything in your ear. That means no cotton swabs, no pencils, no keys, no paper clips, no bobby pins or anything else that can scratch the ear canal and initiate infection. Keep your ears dry. Use a swim cap or earplugs if necessary. Don’t put your hearing aid in your ear after showering or swimming until your ear canal is dry. Clean and disinfect your ear molds and earbuds regularly to prevent introduction of bacteria into your canals.
How is Swimmer’s Ear treated?
The most common treatment for Swimmer’s Ear is antibiotic ear drops prescribed by your physician. Usually, oral antibiotics are not necessary unless the infection has traveled beyond the ear canal. In some cases, the ear canal is so swollen that a thin wick almost like a cotton candle wick must be gently placed in the ear to allow the ear drops to work their way into the canal. It can take several days for your ear to start to feel better. In the meantime, keep your ear dry (except for the prescribed ear drops of course) and don’t use ear buds or your hearing aid in the affected ear until the ear has healed.
When should I call the doctor?
Call the doctor if you suspect you have an infection, especially if you are in pain and have discharge coming from your ear. You should also call your doctor if you are already being treated for Swimmer’s Ear but your symptoms are getting worse instead of better, or if you develop new symptoms such as dizziness or fever. An audiologist cannot prescribe medications to treat your Swimmer’s Ear, but if you are prone to repeat infections, your audiologist can fit you for custom ear plugs for swimming and showering. Here at Placid Audiology, we have a wide range of custom solutions for your protection for work and recreation.
What causes Swimmer’s Ear?
The most common cause of Swimmer’s Ear is bacteria, but it can also be caused by a virus or fungus as well. Swimmer’s Ear (Otitis Externa) is different from a middle ear infection common in young children (Otitis Media) which happens behind the eardrum. The ear canal has natural defenses to ward off infection including cerumen (ear wax). Cerumen helps to keep germs from growing in the ear canal. If that protective layer is damaged or scratched, germs can grow, especially if the environment is moist from trapped water.
What are the risk factors for Swimmer’s Ear?
- Swimming or bathing in water with high levels of bacteria
- Frequent use of hearing aids or ear buds
- Excessive cleaning or scratching of the ear canal
- Excessive ear wax (helps trap water in the ear canal)
- Narrow or tortuous ear canals that can trap moisture
Can there be serious complications from Swimmer’s Ear?
Absolutely! The sooner the infection is dealt with, the better. Remember, an infection of the external ear canal calls for antibiotic drops administered TO the ear canal. Oral antibiotics are not usually called for unless the infection spreads beyond the ear canal. Complications can be even life threatening in rare instances. Serious infection can range from cellulitis (deep tissue infection) to the spread of infection to nearby areas of the skull base, temporal bone, and cranial nerves.
How is Swimmer’s Ear diagnosed?
Swimmer’s Ear can be diagnosed by your general physician or ENT (Ear, Nose, and Throat specialist). If your ear canal is itchy, painful, somewhat clogged, and especially if your ear hurts to move around (tugging on the ear itself), seek prompt treatment. Swimmer’s Ear can be incredibly painful but improvement can happen within a day or two after starting the correct medication. If symptoms worsen instead of improve within a few days, return to your physician for further intervention. At Placid Audiology in Lake Placid, New York we can offer guidance to keep Swimmer’s Ear from becoming a chronic condition.