Otitis externa, or “swimmer’s ear,” is an infection, either bacterial or fungal, involving the skin of the external ear canal. Because this condition commonly affects swimmers or is caused by water trapped in the ear canal, it is also known as swimmer’s ear. This differs from a middle ear infection, which is an infection behind the eardrum.
Otitis externa results in swelling of the ear canal and can be associated with significant canal tenderness and pain, itching, drainage and changes in hearing. Severe cases may cause the ear canal to swell shut.
Contributing risk factors for otitis externa include prolonged exposure to moisture in the ear, excessive cleaning of the ear with Q-Tips, or other skin conditions of the ear canal such as eczema.
Swimmer’s ear is most common among children and young adults and people who suffer from chronic middle ear infections. While swimmer’s ear is usually not a serious condition, it can lead to more serious side effects if not treated. These side effects include temporary hearing loss, recurring infections and bone and cartilage damage.
The primary treatment for otitis externa is topical antibiotic drops placed in the ear canal. If the canal is very inflamed and swollen, a cotton wick may be placed to allow for penetration of the drops past the obstructed canal. Additionally, infected debris may need to be cleaned from the canal to facilitate healing. Depending on the severity of the infection, oral antibiotics may also be prescribed. “Dry ear precautions” are a critical element of treatment.
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