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.
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