by Kimberly Allen R.N.
Swimmers ear also known as external otitis is an infection affection the skin that lines the ear canal and covers the outer ear. Anyone can get swimmers ear at any age though children and teenagers tend to develop swimmers ear more frequently than other age groups with the exception of competitive swimmers and adults that spend a lot of time in the water.
The name swimmers ear was given to external otitis because it usually occurs during the summer when most people seem to be in the water, however, you can develop swimmers ear from shower or bath water as well. You can also develop swimmers ear if you damage the delicate skin lining the ear canal by sticking something smaller than your elbow in it, like q-tips or fingers. A scratch in the skin breaks the integrity of the skin providing an opening for bacteria to slip in. The bacteria that causes swimmers ear is usually found in the water or soil. Occasionally swimmers ear is caused by a virus or fungus but not often.
People with weakened immune systems whether due to medications or another underlying health condition including diabetes are not only more susceptible but tend to develop a much more severe case of swimmers ear. Other things that increases your chances of developing swimmers ear include anything that can cause moisture or water to remain in your ear canal like heavy perspiration or even prolonged humid weather. Cleaning your ears with a q-tip or even worse a hair pin can easily scratch the lining of your ear canal allowing for bacteria to invade.
The symptoms of swimmers ear are mild in the beginning, however they worsen of the infection spreads or is not treated. Mild symptoms that indicate the beginning of swimmers ear include itching and mild redness in your ear canal, mild pain or discomfort in your near and some people will have a little clear drainage. As it worsens the itching and redness also worsens and the pain becomes more intense. Frequently you’ll have the sensation of your ear being block or full as your ear canal swells. You will also start having more drainage from your ear canal that is now also usually pus instead of clear fluid and your hearing will be muffled. In advanced or severe swimmers ear the pain is severe and will frequently radiate around the side of your head to your face and neck. The ear canal is usually completely blocked and the redness and swelling now involves the outer ear. In some cases there is also swelling of the lymph nodes in your neck and you will probably have a fever.
Treatment involves the Dr cleaning your outer ear canal to remove any clumps of ear wax, drainage or flaking skin to facilitate ear drops. The ear drops that your Dr will usually prescribe will be a combination of different medications depending on the severity of your particular infection. The most common combinations include an acid solution which is to aide in restoring the normal antibacterial environment in your ear, a steroid to decrease to inflammation, and either an antibiotic or antifungal medication. The goal in any treatment plan for swimmers ear is to stop the infection and allow the ear canal to heal. This means you will have to stay out of the water for awhile to allow the ear canal to properly heal.
Some of the things you can do to prevent swimmers ear is to always dry your ears after swimming or bathing. Use a soft towel on your outer ear and then tilt your head to the side to allow any water to drain out of your ear canal. If necessary you can use a blow dryer on it’s lowest setting and hold it at least a foot away from your ear. You can also make your own preventative ear drops by mixing 1 part white vinegar and 1 part rubbing alcohol. Then take 1 teaspoon and carefully either by using a dropper or a spoon put put it in your ear then tilt your head to allow it to drain back out. You should not use these drops if you have a punctured ear drum. Always talk to your Dr if you’ve recently had an ear infection or surgery before going swimming. And the one thing I was always told is never put anything smaller than your elbow in your ear.
Kimberly Allen is a registered nurse with an AND in nursing. She has worked in ACF, LCF and psychiatric facilities, although she spent most of her career as a home health expert. She is now a regular contributor to HealthAndFitnessTalk.com, dispensing advice and knowledge about medical issues and questions. You can reach her with any comments or questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.