As summer approaches, there is one condition that swimmers should stay aware of - swimmer’s ear. Swimmer’s ear can be triggered by exposure to water and can lead to complications that affect a person’s ear canal.
This quick guide to swimmer’s ear outlines how to reduce the risk of contracting this painful condition.
Symptoms and complications
Swimmer’s ear, also known as otitis externa, is an infection or inflammation of the canal between the outer ear and the eardrum.
Symptoms of swimmer's ear include pain, itchiness, pus in the ear canal, compromised hearing and a buzzing or humming heard inside the ear. The infection can spread to the bones of the ear canal or even the lower part of the skull, leading to complications that require medical treatment.
Swimmer’s ear can be caused by water in the ear canal, damage resulting from too much cleaning or chemical irritation from hair products. Dirty water can infect the canal with bacteria, while over-zealous cleaning can lead to mechanical damage. Chemicals can irritate the tissue inside the ear, while infected hair follicles or cell build-up in the ear can also trigger the condition.
In some cases, a middle ear infection can trigger a related infection in the ear canal. Diabetes can also be a contributing factor, as this condition can create an alkaline environment in the ear that supports infectious agents.
Physical examinations with an otoscope are required for diagnosing swimmer’s ear. The ear canal may be red, peeling and/or scaled, or the eardrum might be swollen and inflamed. A microscopic exam could also be conducted to check whether the infection has been caused by fungi or bacteria.
Treatment options include cleaning and drainage, application of earplugs, painkillers, heat packs, antibiotic or anti-fungal medication or intravenous antibiotics. In very serious cases, surgery might be required to drain fluid and prevent further pressure from being placed on the ear and skull bones.
Preventing swimmer’s ear
Those who are exposed to water can reduce the risk of contracting swimmer’s ear by avoiding dirty or polluted waterways, wearing earplugs, drying ears thoroughly and avoiding over-cleaning of their ear canals. Seeking medical treatment when appropriate is also important.