What is Swimmer’s Ear and How is it Treated?

We all get itchy ears from time to time. But if you’re a swimmer, or have ever had a problem getting all the water out of your ear after swimming, you may have experienced an irritating condition called swimmer’s ear. But what is swimmer’s ear? Our team at Arkansas Otolaryngology Center takes a look at what causes swimmer's ear and how it's treated...

In medical terminology, swimmer’s ear is called otitis externa. It is an infection of the outer ear canal. While the condition is common among swimmers because they spend so much time in the water, swimmer’s ear can also result from other things that enable the buildup of bacteria in the ear canal.

Swimmer’s ear usually results from water or other fluid remaining in the ear canal. When fluid is allowed to remain in the ear canal, the environment becomes hospitable for bacteria to grow. The buildup of bacteria can lead to an infection of the skin, which causes the itching, discomfort, and even mild pain we experience with swimmer’s ear. As the infection progresses, these sensations will become more prominent and the ear may discharge fluid and puss. Hearing blockage from the fluid buildup and infection is also a common symptom of swimmer’s ear. A fever may also result as the infection develops.

If there are any scratches or other damage to the skin inside the ear canal, an infection can develop more quickly. This is why it’s important to refrain from inserting your fingers or objects such as cotton swabs into the ear canal, which can easily cause damage to the skin and passageway. It’s tempting to use cotton swabs to remove excessive ear wax, but they are really only meant to be used on the outside of our ears!

Thankfully, most ear infections can be easily treated by your ear, nose, and throat doctor. First, the ENT may use hydrogen peroxide to safely clear out fluid or other blockages in the outer canal, and then use a device to look at the eardrum to make sure it’s not damaged. If you do have swimmer’s ear or other ear infection, your doctor will likely prescribe you antibiotic or steroid drops (often used together) to kill the bacteria and restore the skin of the ear canal to its healthy condition. Anti-fungal drops may also be necessary if the infection was caused by fungi entering and remaining in the ear canal.

To increase your chances of avoiding swimmer’s ear, try your best to dry out your ears completely after swimming. Use a towel and tilt the head to allow the water to roll out. You can also use a hair dryer or fan to gently blow some air into the ear to help the drying process.

If you take these steps and still end up with irritation that may indicate an infection, make an appointment to get checked out with your ENT. For more information, or to schedule an appointment concerning Swimmer’s Ear, contact the ENTs at Arkansas Otolaryngology Center today!