Originally published by ENThealth.org.
These symptoms often occur after water gets trapped in your ear, especially if the water has bacteria or fungal organisms in it. Because this condition commonly affects swimmers, it is known as swimmer’s ear.
Swimmer’s ear often affects children and teenagers, but can also affect those with eczema (a condition that causes the skin to itch), those with highly sensitive or allergic skin reactions, excess earwax, and who wear hearing aids or earbuds. Your primary care provider or ENT (ear, nose, and throat) specialist, or otolaryngologist, will prescribe treatment to reduce your pain and to treat the infection.
What Are the Symptoms of Swimmer’s Ear?
Signs and symptoms of swimmer’s ear may include:
- Itching inside the ear (common)
- Pain inside the ear that gets worse when you tug on the outer ear (common)
- Sensation that the ear is blocked or full
- Drainage from the ear
- Decreased hearing
- Intense pain that may spread to the neck, face, or side of the head
- Swollen lymph nodes around the ear or in the upper neck
- Redness or swelling of the skin around the ear
If left untreated, a certain amount of hearing loss may occur. When the infection clears up, hearing usually returns to normal. Recurring ear infections (chronic otitis externa) are also possible. Without treatment, infections can continue to occur or persist.
Bone and cartilage damage (malignant otitis externa) are also possible due to untreated swimmer’s ear. If left untreated, ear infections can spread to the base of your skull, brain, or cranial nerves. Diabetics, older adults, and those with conditions that weaken the immune system are at higher risk for such dangerous complications.
To evaluate you for swimmer’s ear, your doctor will look for redness and swelling in your ear canal, and ask if you are experiencing any pain. Your doctor may also take a sample of any abnormal fluid or discharge in your ear (ear culture) to test for the presence of bacteria or fungus if you have recurrent or severe infections.
What Causes Swimmer’s Ear?
A common source of the infection is increased moisture trapped in the ear canal from baths, showers, swimming, or moist environments. When water is trapped in the ear canal, bacteria that normally inhabit the skin and ear canal multiply, causing infection of the ear canal. Swimmer’s ear needs to be treated to reduce pain and eliminate any effect it may have on your hearing, as well as to prevent the spread of infection.
Other factors that may contribute to swimmer’s ear include:
- Contact with excessive bacteria that may be present in hot tubs or polluted water
- Excessive cleaning of the ear canal with cotton swabs or anything else that may cause breaks in the ear canal skin allowing bacteria in
- Contact with certain chemicals such as hair spray or hair dye (avoid this by placing cotton balls in your ears when using these products)
- Damage to the skin of the ear canal following water irrigation to remove wax
- A cut in the skin of the ear canal
- Other skin conditions affecting the ear canal, such as eczema or seborrhea
Finally, what’s often called swimmer’s ear can also be caused by ill-fitting hearing aids, or contaminated earbuds, earphones, or other ear devices.