Acute external otitis or otitis externa – commonly known as swimmer’s ear – is an infection that strikes the outer ear canal, the portion outside the eardrum. The popular name swimmer’s ear comes from the fact that the problem is frequently linked to swimming. When moisture remains in the outer ear it results in a moist environment in which bacteria may flourish. But water is not the only culprit. Acute external otitis can also be attributable to damaging the sensitive skin lining the ear canal by stiking fingertips, Q-tips or other objects in the ear. Thankfully swimmer’s ear is easily treated. If untreated, swimmer’s ear may cause severe complications so it is essential to recognize the symptoms of the infection.

Swimmer’s ear happens due to the ear’s innate defenses (which include the glands that secrete ear wax or cerumen) becoming overwhelmed. Bacteria can get a foothold and begin to multiply in the ears for numerous different reasons such as excess moisture or damage to the lining of the ear canal. Particular activities will increase your risk of contracting swimmer’s ear. Swimming (obviously), use of inside-the-ear devices (including hearing aids or ear buds), overly aggressive cleaning of the ear canal and allergies all increase your risk of infection.

Mild signs of swimmer’s ear include itching within the ear, slight discomfort or pain worsened by pulling on the ear, redness, and a colorless fluid draining from the ear. In more moderate cases of infection, these problems may develop into 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. Complications of untreated swimmer’s ear can be significant, including temporary hearing loss, bone and cartilage loss, long-term ear infections, and the spreading of deep-tissue infections to other parts of the body. So if you experience even the milder symptoms of swimmer’s ear, it’s a good idea to see your doctor immediately.

Swimmer’s ear can be diagnosed in an office visit after a visual examination. The doctor will also check to determine if there is any damage to the eardrum itself. Physicians generally treat swimmer’s ear by first cleaning the ears carefully, and then by prescribing eardrops to remove the infection. If the infection has become extensive or serious, the doctor may also prescribe oral antibiotics.

You can help to avoid swimmer’s ear by keeping your ears dry after bathing or swimming, by avoiding swimming in untreated water, and by not placing foreign objects in your ears in an attempt to clean them.

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