How to Treat Swimmer's Ear

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School is out and swimming lessons are back! If your child complains to you about an earache after a dip in the pool, it could be acute otitis externa — commonly known as “swimmer’s ear.”

Causes

The infection develops when water is trapped in the outer ear canal (which runs from your eardrum to the outside of your head), which creates a moist environment that aids bacterial growth. According to the CDC, germs found in pools or at other recreational water venues are one of the most common causes of swimmer’s ear.

Putting fingers, cotton swabs or other objects in your ears can increase your chances of getting swimmer’s ear. This damages the thin layer of skin lining your ear canal, making it easier for bacteria to invade.

Symptoms

Swimmer’s ear symptoms may be mild in the beginning, but can worsen or spread if it isn’t treated. The Mayo Clinic lists three different levels of symptoms:

Mild signs and symptoms

  • Itching inside the ear
  • Slight redness and swelling of the ear
  • Mild pain when pressure is applied on the ear
  • Some drainage of clear, odorless fluid (pus)

Moderate progression

  • More intense itching
  • Increasing pain
  • More extensive redness in your ear
  • Excessive fluid drainage
  • Pus discharge
  • Feeling of fullness inside your ear, and partial blockage of your ear canal by swelling, fluid and debris
  • Decreased or muffled hearing

Advanced progression

  • Severe pain that may radiate to your face, neck or side of your head
  • Complete blockage of your ear canal
  • Redness or swelling of your outer ear
  • Swelling in the lymph nodes in your neck
  • Fever

Treatment

The goal is to stop the infection and allow the ear canal to heal. To do this, your doctor can prescribe eardrops to help fight the bacterial growth and reduce inflammation. Carefully cleaning the ear canal is important so that the eardrops can easily reach the infected areas. Your doctor may also recommend easing the discomfort with over-the-counter pain relievers or stronger medication if the pain is severe.

Prevention

The American Academy of Otolaryngology provides these tips for preventing swimmer’s ear:

  • A dry ear is unlikely to become infected, so it is important to keep the ears free of moisture during/after swimming or bathing.
  • Use ear plugs when swimming.
  • Use a dry towel or hair dryer to dry your ears.
  • Have your ears cleaned periodically by an otolaryngologist if you have itchy, flaky or scaly ears, or extensive earwax.
  • Don’t use cotton swabs to remove ear wax. These can pack ear wax and dirt deeper into the ear canal, remove the layer of earwax that protects your ear, and irritate the thin skin of the ear canal — all of which create an ideal environment for infection.

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