What is swimmer’s ear?
Swimmer’s ear, also called otitis externa, is a painful condition in which the skin of the outer ear, or ear canal, is infected. This is different from middle ear infections, also known as otitis media, which is common in children.
Swimmer’s ear is more common in children and young adults, but it is possible to suffer from it at any age. It is rarely a serious condition; however, the infection can spread to other areas in the head area, such as the skull. This can usually be treated sufficiently with antibiotics.
The main symptoms of swimmer’s ear include:
• Feeling of having a bubble in your ear
• Muffled hearing
• Itching in or around the ear
• Water coming from your ear
• Dry or flaky skin around the ear
• Swelling of the ear canal
Despite the name ‘swimmer’s ear’, you do not have to be swimming to suffer with it. The common cause is moisture being trapped in the ear canal. This means that baths, showers, humid environments and washing hair can lead to swimmer’s ear. The condition can also be caused by a foreign object getting stuck in the ear. Examples of this are chemicals such as sprays or cotton buds.
People who suffer from skin conditions such as eczema and psoriasis, and those who wear hearing aids, earplugs or buds are also at greater risk of developing swimmer’s ear.
Treatment and prevention
If you get water in your ear, be sure to get the water out as safely as you can. Tilting your head and pulling on the earlobe can help. To limit the water that enters your ear, you could use earplugs or a bathing hat and be sure to towel dry around your ears after you have washed. One of the best ways is to use a big piece of cotton wool with some Vaseline, which makes the cotton wool waterproof. This is relatively cheap and you can use a clean piece each time you shower.
You are more likely to get an infection whilst having a bath or shower at home that swimming in a public swimming pool. This is because swimming pools in the UK contain chlorine which kills off most infectious organisms, unlike bath or shower water. Also shampoo and soap can irritate the skin of the ear canal, particularly if the ears remain wet and moist after showering. Therefore, strict water precautions are very important to maintain.
The good news is that swimmer’s ear is typically easy to treat. Your physician can arrange for any pus to be removed from the area by microsuction, undertake a swab of the ear if an infection is suspected, and prescribe antibiotics to treat the infection. Avoid getting your ears wet while the infection is being treated and do not insert anything other than prescribed drops into them. Infection is usually treated successfully with antibiotic ear drops over the course of 7 – 10 days. If the infection has spread to another area, you may need to take oral antibiotics.
You may also want to take over the counter pain relief medication, such as ibuprofen. If symptoms do not improve or new symptoms appear after seven days, you will need to contact your GP or ENT specialist once again for a further assessment.
An ENT specialist, such as London ENT, can provide professional advice on swimmer’s ear and all other ENT conditions and procedures. Contact us on 0203 865 7225.