Known as acute external otitis, swimmer’s ear is an infection in the ear canal. This infection is usually caused by water becoming trapped in the ear after swimming. The water creates an ideal environment for bacteria to grow. Normally, your ear canal does a good job of keeping water from building up inside the ear. Earwax and the downward slope of the ear canal help drain water from the canal. If you are submerged in water (as with swimming) these normal defenses are unable to protect your ear. Cleaning your ear with a cotton swab can also contribute to bacterial growth within the ear canal, as a cotton swab can cause scratches inside the canal. These scratches are an ideal place for bacteria to become trapped and grow.
There are three levels of swimmer’s ear: mild, moderate and advanced. Mild symptoms include itching, slight redness inside the ear canal and some drainage of clear, odorless fluid. Moderate symptoms include more intense itching, pain and redness, discharge of pus and a feeling of fullness inside the ear. The symptoms of an advanced swimmer’s ear include severe pain, complete blockage of the ear canal and a fever. If you are experiencing severe pain and a fever you should contact your doctor immediately.
If swimmer’s ear is treated in a timely manner it is normally not serious. Occasionally, temporary hearing loss can occur, but this will go away as the infection clears up. Long-term infections, lasting longer than three months, can occur if the bacterial infection is not responding to treatment or if it is combined with a fungal infection.
The treatment for swimmer’s ear is quite simple, your doctor will most likely prescribe a combination of ear drops. An antibiotic will fight the infection and a steroid will reduce the inflammation within the ear canal. To fight the pain, over-the-counter medications, such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen will usually be recommended.
In order to prevent any future infections, always dry your ears after swimming. Use a soft towel and only dry the outer part of the ear. A one-to-one mixture of white vinegar and rubbing alcohol can be poured into the ear after swimming to help dry out the ear and prevent the growth of bacteria. Never use a cotton swab or other object to clear out the ear canal.