Swimmers' ear is a commonly used name for otitis externa. In this post we will describe swimmer's ear symptoms and treatment. It is a condition which involves itching, redness, flaking, inflammation and discharge of the ear canal and outer ear. It is often caused by lengthy and repeated immersion in swimming pools or the sea, hence the name 'swimmers' ear'. Sufferers commonly suffer early symptoms of itching, tingling, discomfort and flaking of skin. Later, symptoms of increased soreness, pain, discharge of pus or watery fluid and muffled hearing may develop. Advanced cases may result in severe swelling. Conductive hearing loss can occur due to obstruction of the ear canal from debris as well as constant discharge of pus.
Common Causes Of Swimmers' Ear And Otitis Externa
1) Repeated immersion in water
- Water softens the skin allowing bacteria to penetrate and cause infection.
- Soapy water dissolves the waxy protective layer. It also causes irritation, further increasing the risk of swimmers' ear.
- Sea water is laden with bacteria, increasing the risk. The warm waters of tropical seas harbour even more bacteria, making the situation even worse.
- Avid divers and swimmers who spend a long long time in the water on a regular basis are at high risk. This is particularly if they continue to dive with established infection.
2) Damage to the delicate skin of the ear canal
- Itching at an early stage of otitis externa can be severe. It can result in sufferers inserting pointed objects such as pen lids into the ear canal to scratch. These can damage the delicate skin and increase the risk of infection taking hold. The skin of the ear canal is unique in that it is very thin and tightly bound to the underlying bone. These factors make it more prone to damage from trauma.
3) Underlying eczema or psoriasis of the ear can result in sore itchy ears which are more likely to be scratched. The inflamed skin is prone to infection.
How To Prevent Swimmers' Ear
Avoid repeated or prolonged immersion in the sea, the bath or the swimming pool, particularly if your ears are already sore or infected. Swimming ear plugs can help as they reduce water logging of the ears. They can also help prevent mild ear infections getting worse or otitis externa progressing to otitis media.
Treatment of Swimmers' Ear
Swimmers' ear is infection and inflammation of the ear canal which is effectively treated with ear drops. These usually contain antibiotics such as gentamicin. They may also contain an antifungal agent such as acetic acid (vinegar) and a steroid. It is also important to avoid water or inserting implements in the ear. Severe episodes may require surgical debridement or oral antibiotics (tablets or liquid by mouth).