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Swimmer's Ear

Swimmer's Ear Overview

Swimmer's ear (also called otitis externa) is a painful condition of the visible or outer portion of the ear and ear canal (outer ear). The ear canal is a cylinder-shaped structure that extends from the outer part of the ear, above the ear lobe, all the way to the eardrum (tympanic membrane). The typical size of the canal is about 2.5 centimeters in length and 7-9 millimeters in width.

The main function of the ear canal is to protect the middle ear from infection and entry of foreign objects. This function is accomplished by the length of the canal, making it difficult for objects to enter. In addition, the outer portion of the canal produces ear wax (cerumen) that helps trap debris entering the ear. It also produces an acidic environment that may be harmful to bacteria entering the ear. There is also hair in the ear canal which provides an additional barrier against debris entering the ear.

Males and females of all ages are affected by otitis externa equally, but children and teenagers most frequently develop this type of ear infection. Up to 10% of the population may develop this condition in their lifetime. Children are most often affected as they routinely spend more time in the water swimming, etc. during vacation periods than adults. However, competitive swimmers and adults that are frequent swimmers can be disproportionally affected as well.

Most of the time, swimmer's ear is easy to recognize and easy to cure with home care and, if necessary, a visit to a health care professional.

Because the condition occurs most often during the summer with exposure of the ear to water while swimming, many people call it swimmer's ear. Water from a bath or shower can trigger the condition, too.

People with diabetes or those whose immune systems are weakened can develop a more worrisome form of the disorder that might require hospitalization for intensive medical treatment. This is referred to as malignant otitis externa, and is not related to swimmer's ear, per se. If a person is concerned about malignant otitis externa, an evaluation by a health care professional or an emergency department is imperative as this can be a serious condition. Although the two entities sound the same, they are distinctly different and also are managed differently.

Picture of the Ear Structure
Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 3/11/2015

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Swimmer's Ear Prevention Tips

DO keep your ears as dry as possible.

  • Use a bathing cap, ear plugs, or custom-fitted swim molds when swimming to keep water out of your ears.

DO dry your ears thoroughly after swimming or showering.

  • Use a towel to dry your ears well.
  • Tilt your head to hold each ear facing down to allow water to escape the ear canal.
  • Pull your earlobe in different directions while your ear is faced down to help water drain out.
  • If you still have water in your ears, consider using a hair dryer to move air within the ear canal.
    • Be sure the hair dryer is on the lowest heat and speed/fan setting.
    • Hold the hair dryer several inches from your ear.

DON'T put objects in your ear canal (including cotton-tip swabs, pencils, paperclips, or fingers).

DON'T try to remove ear wax. Ear wax helps protect your ear canal from infection.

  • If you think your ear canal is blocked by ear wax, consult your health care provider rather than trying to remove it yourself.

CONSULT your health care provider about using commercial, alcohol-based ear drops or a 1:1 mixture of rubbing alcohol and white vinegar after swimming.

  • Drops should not be used by persons with ear tubes, damaged ear drums, outer ear infection, or ear drainage (pus or liquid coming from the ear).

CONSULT your healthcare provider if your ears are itchy, flaky, swollen, or painful, or if you have drainage from your ears.

ASK your pool/hot tub operator if disinfectant and pH levels are checked at least twice per day -hot tubs and pools with proper disinfectant and pH levels are less likely to spread germs.

USE pool test strips to check the pool or hot tub yourself for adequate disinfectant and pH levels.

SOURCE: "Swimmer's Ear" (Otitis Externa) Prevention.

Read What Your Physician is Reading on Medscape

Otitis Externa »

Otitis externa is an inflammation or infection of the external auditory canal and/or auricle.

Read More on Medscape Reference »

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