Acute external otitis is an infection of the outer ear canal – the portion outside your eardrum. More people recognize it by its common name – swimmer’s ear. It was named “swimmer’s ear” because it’s often a result of water staying in the outer ear following swimming, which provides a moist environment that promotes microbial growth. But water is not the only culprit. Acute external otitis can also be attributable to harming the delicate skin lining the ear canal by placing fingertips, cotton swabs or other objects in the ear. Thankfully swimmer’s ear is easily cured. If left untreated, swimmer’s ear can cause severe complications so it is essential to recognize the symptoms of the infection.

When the ear’s innate protection mechanisms are overwhelmed, the result can be swimmer’s ear. Moisture in the ears, sensitivity reactions, and scrapes to the lining of the ear canal can all promote the growth of bacteria, and cause infection. Activities that raise your likelihood of developing swimmer’s ear include swimming (especially in untreated water such as that found in lakes), aggressive cleaning of the ear canal with cotton swabs, use of in-ear devices such as “ear buds” or hearing aids, and allergies.

Mild symptoms of swimmer’s ear include itching inside the ear, minor discomfort or pain made worse by tugging on the ear, redness, and a colorless fluid draining from the ear. In more moderate cases, 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 quite serious. Complications may include temporary hearing loss, long-term ear infections, deep tissue infections which may spread to other parts of the body, and cartilage or bone loss. Therefore, if you have experienced any of these signs or symptoms, even if minor, see your health care provider.
During your appointment, the doctor will look for signs of swimmer’s ear with an otoscope, which allows them to look deep into your ear canal. Doctors will also make sure that your eardrum has not been damaged or ruptured. Doctors usually treat swimmer’s ear first by cleaning the ears thoroughly, and then by prescribing eardrops to remove the infection. If the infection has become extensive or serious, the physician may also prescribe antibiotics taken orally.

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