Provided by: David Straka, MD
With a few more weeks of summer ahead, there’s still plenty of time to enjoy the pool, and with that, it’s a great time to talk about swimmer’s ear. Also known as otitis externa, swimmer’s ear is an infection or inflammation of the external ear canal. The ear canal connects the auricle (external ear) to the ear drum, where ear wax is created. Swimmer’s ear can be caused by a buildup of ear wax that gets wet and never dries out, leading to an overgrowth of bacteria or fungus.
Otitis externa is common and can happen at any age, even without swimming. Just enough water from bathing or excessive sweat with earbuds can trap moisture and create an environment for infection. Other factors that can cause otitis externa are putting items in the canal to clean or scratch the ear, most infamously Q-tips. Symptoms of swimmer’s ears can be the sensation of fullness or blockage, foul drainage, pain in the ear canal or external ear, hearing loss, redness, or swelling.
Treatment for otitis externa can involve cleaning out impacted wax and using medicated ear drops or, in severe cases, oral antibiotics. Tips for preventing swimmer’s ears are to use ear plugs while swimming, use a hair dryer after water exposure to dry the ear canal, have your ear cleaned by a medical professional, and avoid putting anything in your ear – as the common adage goes, “never put anything in your ear smaller than your elbow.”
If you or your family member have recurrent episodes of swimmer’s ear or have a severe case, you may be referred to an otolaryngologist (ENT) for evaluation.