Swimmer's Ear Infection (External Otitis)
Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD
Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD, is a U.S. board-certified Anatomic Pathologist with subspecialty training in the fields of Experimental and Molecular Pathology. Dr. Stöppler's educational background includes a BA with Highest Distinction from the University of Virginia and an MD from the University of North Carolina. She completed residency training in Anatomic Pathology at Georgetown University followed by subspecialty fellowship training in molecular diagnostics and experimental pathology.
William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR
Dr. Shiel received a Bachelor of Science degree with honors from the University of Notre Dame. There he was involved in research in radiation biology and received the Huisking Scholarship. After graduating from St. Louis University School of Medicine, he completed his Internal Medicine residency and Rheumatology fellowship at the University of California, Irvine. He is board-certified in Internal Medicine and Rheumatology.
- Swimmer's ear definition and facts
- What is "swimmer's ear" infection?
- What causes swimmer's ear infection?
- What is chronic swimmer's ear?
- What are the signs and symptoms of swimmer's ear?
- What natural home remedies treatments help cure swimmer's ear?
- What about swimmer's ear in children?
- How can swimmer's ear be prevented?
- What is the prognosis for a person with chronic swimmer's ear?
- Why do ears itch?
- What should I do if I get a foreign object or insect in my ear?
- Ear Infection (Otitis Media) FAQs
- Find a local Ear, Nose, & Throat Doctor in your town
Swimmer's ear definition and facts
- Swimmer's ear, or external otitis, is typically a bacterial infection of the skin of the outer ear canal. In contrast to a middle ear infection, swimmer's ear is an infection of the outer ear.
- Swimmer's ear can occur in both acute and chronic forms.
- Excessive water exposure and water trapped in the ear is a risk factor for developing swimmer's ear.
- Frequent instrumentation (usually with cotton swabs) of the ear canal is another potential cause of external ear infection.
- Early symptoms include
- Home remedies to help prevent swimmer's ear include
- Take measures to keep the ears dry at all times. Use ear plugs or a cotton ball with Vaseline on the outside to plug the ears when showering or swimming.
- Don't scratch the inside of the ear because this may make the condition worse.
- An ear drop preparation made of rubbing alcohol and vinegar can be used after swimming to remove water from the ears and help prevent swimmer's ear.
- Antibiotic ear drops and avoidance of water in the ear are frequently necessary for treatment. If the ear is very swollen, a wick may need to be inserted in the ear canal to allow penetration of the ear drops.
- Follow your doctor's instructions for use of any ear drops or medications
- Proper ear care can avoid most infections.
What is "swimmer's ear" infection?
External otitis or "swimmer's ear" is an infection of the skin covering the outer ear and ear canal.
What causes swimmer's ear infection?
- Acute external otitis is commonly a bacterial infection caused by Streptococcus, Staphylococcus, or Pseudomonas types of bacteria. Swimmer's ear infection usually is caused by excessive water exposure from swimming, diving, surfing, kayaking, or other water sports. When water collects in the ear canal (frequently trapped by wax), the skin can become soggy and serve as an inviting area for bacteria to grow.
- Cuts or abrasions in the lining of the ear canal (for example, from cotton swab injury) also can predispose to bacterial infection of the ear canal.
What is chronic swimmer's ear?
Chronic (long-term) swimmer's ear is otitis externa that persists for longer than four weeks or that occurs more than four times a year. This condition can be caused by a
- bacterial infection,
- a skin condition (eczema or seborrhea),
- fungal infection (Aspergillosis),
- chronic irritation (such as from the use of hearing aids, insertion of cotton swabs, etc.),
- allergy, chronic drainage from middle ear disease, tumors (rare), or
- it may simply follow from a nervous habit of frequently scratching the ear.
In some people, more than one factor may be involved. For example, a person with eczema may subsequently develop black ear drainage. This would suggest of an accompanying fungal infection.
TThe standard treatments and preventative measures, as noted in the next sections, are often all that is needed to treat even a case of chronic otitis externa. However, in people with diabetes or those with suppressed immune systems, chronic swimmer's ear can become a serious disease (malignant external otitis). Malignant external otitis is a misnomer because it is not a tumor or a cancer, but rather an aggressive bacterial (typically Pseudomonas) infection of the base of the skull.
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