What Is Swimmer's Ear?
The ear is a rather delicate part of the human body. It is also an organ that is highly susceptible to infections and exposure to dirt and dust from various sources. Swimmer’s ear is an infection that primarily occurs in the outer ear canal, a pipe-like tube that goes from the eardrums to the external part of the head. The infection is usually caused by water that lingers in the ears after a swim.
The fluid accumulation creates moisture in the ears, thereby resulting in an environment that favors the growth of bacteria in the ears and, thus, an infection. The bacteria from the infection thrive on the skin in the ear canals, thereby spreading the infection to the entire ear. Other factors, like inserting fingers, cotton buds, or other sharp objects, could also cause swimmer’s ear, as it damages the fragile ear canal lining.
Swimmer’s ear is also called external otitis and, unlike a middle ear infection, goes on to affect the external part of the ear canal. Swimmer’s ear can be treated, and the discomfort and pain can manifest in either mild or chronic forms. In most cases, ear drops are recommended to treat the condition successfully. A quick diagnosis along with prompt treatment is the best way to prevent this condition from leading to various ear complications and other secondary infections.
Is Swimmer’s Ear the Same as an Ear Infection?
There are various forms of ear infections, swimmer’s ear being one of them. Usually, swimmer’s ear refers to a bacterial infection, but in some cases, it could also indicate pain or inflammation in the ears. So, while all ear infections may not be swimmer’s ear, swimmer's ear falls under the umbrella of ear infection.
What Are the Causes of Swimmer’s Ear?
Swimmer’s ear is most commonly caused by the bacteria known as streptococcus, staphylococcus, or pseudomonas. Apart from these bacteria, swimmer’s ear is also a result of the ear being exposed to excessive water during swimming, surfing, diving, kayaking, or any other water activities. The skin becomes soggy when water collects in the ear canal, which is trapped due to the wax. This becomes the breeding ground for bacteria. Also, cuts in the lining of the ear canal can lead to a bacterial infection in the ear.
Some people get chronic swimmer’s ear. In such individuals, the condition persists for longer than four weeks and may occur four times a year or more. Such conditions are caused by:
- Skin conditions, such as eczema or seborrhea
- Bacterial infection in the ear persisting for a long duration
- Any kind of allergy or chronic drainage that stems from middle ear disease
- A tumor, in rare cases
- Irritation due to cotton swabs or hearing aids
- Frequently scratching the ear
What Are the Symptoms of Swimmer’s Ear?
There are various symptoms associated with swimmer’s ear. However, they may sometimes overlap with other conditions and infections associated with the ears. Symptoms are usually mild in the beginning, but worsen as the infection spreads. Some of the prominent symptoms associated with swimmer’s ears include:
- Outer ear infection: There are various signs that can identify an infection of the outer ears, such as redness and severe itching in the outer ear canal. In some severe cases, the ear canal could also become swollen or shut down due to the infection.
- Ear pain: Ear pain often occurs in swimmer’s ear and may occur either off-and-on or continuously. The pain becomes more severe upon touching it or chewing food.
- Fluid or pus drainage: In some cases of swimmer’s ear, the ears may drain pus or fluid. This fluid could be clear, white or yellow in color, and can sometimes smell foul, with traces of blood. The fluid may even form a crust around the opening of the ears.
- Hearing trouble: In certain cases, people may experience inflammation in the ear leading to hearing issues like loss of hearing and/or ringing in the ear.
- Dizziness or a spinning sensation
- Low-grade temperature
Some symptoms are rather mild, such as:
- Mild itching sensation in and around the ears
- Redness inside the ears
- Mild discomfort in the ears, which could be aggravated by touching them
- Mild fluid drainage
As the condition progresses, it could result in more intense symptoms. Advanced progression of the condition leads to:
- Intense pain, which may go up to the face, neck, or one side of the head
- Blockage in the ear canal
- Swelling around the outer ears or the lymph nodes in the neck
- Low or high temperature
Occurrence of Swimmer’s Ear in Children
Children may develop swimmer’s ear after swimming or taking part in any water sports-related activities. During the initial stage, the child will start complaining of ear pain, which would grow more intense over time. Other symptoms would include itching, or sense of the ear being full. Some may complain of discharge from the ear. In such conditions, it is best to check with your doctor. They will conduct a physical examination and will decide if its due to swimmer’s ear or some other condition. Certain treatments, such as pain control medications or antibiotics, may be prescribed by the doctor.
Below are some basic questions you can ask the doctor if you experience any of the signs or symptoms related to swimmer’s ear:
- What are the likely causes of these symptoms?
- What is the best treatment to quickly heal it?
- How long will it take to heal?
- Are there any side effects of the treatment?
- Is a follow-up required post-treatment?
- How can I get rid of chronic swimmer’s ear?
When you visit the doctor, they in turn may ask you:
- When did the first symptoms appear and was there a day they grew worse?
- What sports-related activities are you involved in?
- Do you have a prior history of swimmer’s ear?
- Have you used any cotton swab or sharp object in your ear lately?
- Are you prone to any skin conditions or allergies?
- When was your last ear examination?
How to Treat Swimmer’s Ear
Swimmer’s ear can be treated with timely medical intervention. There are a number of medications that treat this condition effectively. Medications treat the infection causing the condition as well as the symptoms to provide relief. The main steps to treat swimmer’s ear include:
- Cleaning the ear well
- Treating the swelling of the ear canals and the infection causing the condition
- Getting relief from the pain
- Getting a sample of the drainage fluid tested to know the bacteria causing the infection
If there is a lot of pus accumulation along with debris in the ears, the doctor would ideally clean the ears well before putting in the medicine. To clean the ear canals, a wire or plastic loop instrument may be used through a suction tool.
After the ears have been cleaned, the doctor will place a foam wick in the ear canal, which permits the antibiotic medications to enter the ear canal. The wick eventually blows into the canal holding the medication along with the lining of the skin.
If there is oral pain, relieving medications may be recommended. In most cases, oral medicines are not prescribed unless the infection is extremely severe and/or chronic. If required, the doctor will prescribe over-the-counter medications to relive pain, such as ibuprofen, naproxen, or acetaminophen. In severe cases, the doctor will go in for stronger medications.
Also, the eardrops prescribed by the doctor will have ingredients in it such as acidic solution, steroid, antifungal medication, or antibiotics. Each of these has its own properties that reduce inflammation and help return the ear to its normal condition.
- Acidic solution: These agents are effective because the bacteria thriving in the ear cannot survive long in an acidic environment. Some examples are hydrochloric acid, boric acid, and citric acid solutions.
- Anti-inflammatory medications: These medications help with inflammation and reduce pain. At times, the combination of anti-inflammatory medication and acidic solution is much more useful than the acidic solution alone to reduce symptoms and provide relief. Some anti-inflammatory medications include hydrocortisone and dexamethasone.
- Antibiotics: Antibiotics are readily available over the counter for treating swimmer’s ear. Oral drugs are rarely recommended, mostly if the case is severe or it affects people with diabetes or impaired immune systems, as well as those who cannot apply drops in the ear due to too much swelling and closure of the canal. Clotrimazole and miconazole are commonly used medications to treat swimmer’s ear.
- Antiseptic drug: These medications work by killing the thriving bacteria. Some of these antiseptic solutions are alcohol, thymol, and thimerosal. An ear specialist usually applies them in the ear canal.
Home Remedies for Swimmer’s Ear
Apart from the medications, there are also simple home remedies that work great on swimmer’s ear and treat it without any side effects, such as:
- Hydrogen Peroxide: Hydrogen peroxide is a traditional home remedy for treating a number of ear-related problems. About four to five drops of it should be poured into the infected ear and drained out by tilting the head downwards for a complete cleaning.
- White Vinegar: White vinegar is a home remedy known to ease pain and help speed up recovery. Make a solution of a few drops of vinegar in water and pour this slowly into the infected ear.
- Garlic Oil: Garlic is a great way to treat swimmer’s ears. Allow some grated garlic to soak in olive oil overnight. Strain the oil and pour about three drops of this garlic-infused oil into the affected ears for relief.
- Alcohol: Pour some alcohol in the affected ear through a dropper and allow it to spread evenly. Tilt your head downwards to get any excess alcohol out of the ears and ease the infection and pain.
Apart from the above, one should also follow these suggestions:
- Keep your ears as dry as possible. Even a little moisture is enough for bacteria to start growing.
- Use ear plugs if possible while swimming, showering, or carrying out any water activities.
- Avoid scratching the inside of the ear. This will only aggravate the condition and make the skin more irritated.
- If there is any swelling or discharge in the ear, avoid the use of ear plugs or hearing aids until it is treated.
- Doctor’s instructions should be strictly followed for the medications. Even if symptoms go away, medication should not be stopped.
Preventing Swimmer’s Ear Infection
- Avoid swimming in pools or lakes with unclean or contaminated water.
- After a bath or swim, immediately drain out excess fluid or water accumulated in the ears. Tilt your head down towards the floor to remove the excess fluids. Slowly wipe the liquid with a clean cloth.
- When taking a shower or going for a swim, wear a swimming cap to prevent bacteria entering your ears.
- If you regularly go for a swim, try some homemade ear drops containing alcohol and vinegar to prevent an ear infection. This mix helps prevent the growth of bacteria and fungi in the ear canals.
- Avoid inserting pointed, sharp instruments in your ears that could pose a risk for injury.
- Use cotton swabs in your ears in conjunction with products like hair dyes and hair sprays.
- Try to clean your ears of wax. This should be done on regular basis and may at times require a visit to the doctor.
- Avoid inserting any object or cotton swab deep inside the ear canal to remove wax.
- Individuals who already are suffering from an ear infection or who had ear surgery should obtain the doctor’s permission prior to going for a swim or using any kind of ear drop.
- One can use mineral oil ear drops when a dry, crusty skin condition exists to protect the ear from water.
Prognosis for Swimmer’s Ear
One can heal quickly by going in for the correct treatment. Following the doctor’s instructions and taking medications in a timely manner can help resolve the issue quickly. At times, swimmer’s ear can be treated with regular use of antibiotic ear drops. If the ear canal is swollen, the doctor will ask for a wick to administer the ear drop. Swimmer’s ear is not a long-term problem; it is resolved quickly if all precautions are taken, however, those with chronic swimmer’s ear require more intensive treatment.