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Swimmer's Ear (cont.)

What causes swimmer's ear?

The skin lining the ear canal and outer ear serves as a barrier against infection from bacteria and fungi. The ear is protected against infection because the lining is slightly acidic. The lining is also a physical barrier that protects against excessive moisture.

Any break in the skin lining can lead to infection, allowing bacteria or fungi to invade the outer ear.

The barrier can become broken and lead to an infection in the following ways:

  • When you attempt to clean your ears with cotton-tipped swabs or other objects inserted in the ear, the skin lining of the ear canal may break. This can also remove the protective ear wax from the ear canal. The break in the skin allows an infection to start.
  • Excessive moisture in the ear canal from showering or swimming alters the acidic environment of the ear canal, and allows for the invasion of bacteria or fungi. This is the reason this condition happens mainly in the summer months, and is called swimmer's ear. This is especially important when exchanging ear buds with other people. If a person has an ear infection it can be transmitted through ear buds.
  • Ear plugs, hearing aids, headphones, and other devices that may be inserted into the ear canal may increase the risk of swimmer's ear.
  • Chemicals such as hair dyes, bleaches, and shampoos may irritate the ear canal and alter its protective properties. An infection can result.
  • Skin conditions, such as seborrheic dermatitis and psoriasis can cause cracks in the skin that allow bacteria or fungus to enter.

Generally, any inflammation of the outer ear canal, such as infections, allergies, or skin conditions, can lead to swimmer's ear.

The most common bacteria responsible for outer ear infection are Staphylococcus aureus and Pseudomonas aeruginosa. Other bacteria are less common. In less than 10% of cases fungus causes of swimmer's ear.

Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 12/7/2015

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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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