Swimmer's Ear (Otitis Externa)

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What is swimmer's ear?

Swimmer's ear (otitis externa) is an inflammation or infection of the ear canal , the passage that leads from the outer ear to the eardrum. This condition is called swimmer's ear because it commonly occurs in people who have been swimming. But other people can get it too.

What causes swimmer's ear?

You can get swimmer's ear when bacteria or fungus grows in your ear canal. This happens when water, sand, or other small debris irritates the delicate skin in the ear canal. Other things that can irritate the ear canal include hearing aids, lots of ear cleaning, and eczema of the ear canal.

Swimmer's ear is more likely if you have a very narrow or hairy ear canal; live in a warm, humid climate; have little or no earwax; have lots of ear infections; or have eczema or dry skin. If you have had swimmer's ear in the past, you are more likely to get it again.

What are the symptoms?

Swimmer's ear can be very painful. The pain can get worse when you touch the earlobe or another part of the outer ear or when you chew.

Other symptoms can include itching, a feeling of fullness in the ear, and a yellowish or brownish discharge from the ear. Your ear canal may be swollen. In severe cases, the outer ear can be red and swollen too.

If you think you have swimmer's ear, call your doctor to find the best way to treat it.

If you have diabetes or take medicine that suppresses your immune system, swimmer's ear can cause severe problems. Call your doctor right away.

How is it treated?

Follow these tips when treating swimmer's ear:

  • If your doctor prescribed eardrops, use them as directed.
  • Talk with your doctor before putting anything in your ear.
  • Avoid getting water in the ear until after the problem clears up.
  • Use a hair dryer to carefully dry the ear after you shower.
  • Take an over-the-counter pain medicine like acetaminophen (such as Tylenol), ibuprofen (such as Advil or Motrin), or naproxen. Read and follow all instructions on the label. Do not give aspirin to anyone younger than 20. It has been linked to Reye syndrome, a serious illness.

Some home treatment can help swimmer's ear. But it is important to see a doctor first. If your doctor says it is okay, you can try the following:

  • If your ear is itchy, try nonprescription swimmer's eardrops, such as Star-Otic or Swim-Ear. Use them before and after swimming or getting your ears wet.
  • To ease ear pain, apply a warm washcloth or a heating pad set on low. There may be some drainage when the heat melts earwax.
    • Do not use a heating pad when you are in bed. You may fall asleep and burn yourself.
    • Do not use a heating pad on a child.

In severe cases, the ear canal should be carefully cleaned out by an ear specialist.

Occasionally, if the ear canal is very swollen, a wick with antibiotic drops will be placed in the ear canal.

Do not use ear candles. They have no proven benefit, and they can cause harm.


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