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Swimmer’s ear: Symptoms, treatment and prevention

What is swimmer's ear?

Swimmer's ear is inflammation of the ear canal and is also known by its medical name otitis externa.

You don’t have to be a swimmer to get this painful condition, but it gets it name because it often affects children and young adults who swim a lot.

Swimmer's ear can cause a discharge from the ear of liquid or pus, as well as some temporary loss of hearing.

The condition is very common, affecting around 1 in 10 people at some stage.

As well as swimming, swimmer's ear is often caused by excess moisture from everyday showering.

The moisture can cause the skin inside the ear canal to dry out and flake. A break in the skin, which may be a result of trying to scratch the persistent itch from the dry and flaky skin, can allow bacteria or occasionally a fungus, to invade the tissue of the ear canal and trigger an infection.

Swimming in polluted water is a common cause of swimmer's ear. The bacteria in the water find a hospitable home in the moist environment of an inflamed ear canal.

Other skin conditions, such as seborrhoeic dermatitis and psoriasis, can also lead to swimmer's ear. Another common cause is excessive and unnecessary cleaning of wax from the ears.

Not only does wax protect the ear canal from excess moisture, it also harbours friendly bacteria. Removing this protective barrier - particularly with hairpins, fingernails or other objects that can scratch the skin - makes it easier for an infection to take hold.

Hairspray and hair colouring, which can irritate the ear canal, may also lead to an ear canal infection.

What are the symptoms of swimmer's ear?

The symptoms of swimmer's ear include:

  • Itching inside the ear
  • Watery discharge from the ear
  • Severe pain and tenderness in the ear, especially when moving your head or gently pulling on your earlobe
  • An unpleasant-smelling, yellowish discharge from the ear
  • Temporarily muffled hearing - caused by blockage of the ear canal

Seek medical advice for swimmer's ear if:

  • You have any of the symptoms of an ear infection.
  • You are experiencing dizziness or ringing in the ears (tinnitus). These symptoms may indicate a more serious problem that needs medical attention.
  • You have severe pain in your ear. Your doctor can provide medication to relieve it.
  • You also notice a rash on your scalp or near your ear. This could mean you have seborrhoeic dermatitis, for which your doctor can recommend treatment.

What treatments are there for swimmer's ear?

Swimmer's ear is not usually a dangerous condition and it often clears up within a few days of starting treatment. In rare cases, especially in people with diabetes, the infection may be more difficult to treat and can spread and damage underlying bones and cartilage.

WebMD Medical Reference

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