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Swimmer's Ear

Insight into causes, prevention & when to see an ENT

Causes
Swimmer’s ear is an infection of the outer ear structures.  It typically occurs in swimmers, but since the cause of the infection is water trapped in the ear canal, water from bathing or showering may also cause this common infection.  When water is trapped in the ear canal, bacteria that normally inhabit the skin and ear canal multiply, causing infection and irritation of the ear canal.   If the infection progresses it may involve the outer ear.

Treatment
Treatment for the early stages of swimmer’s ear includes careful cleaning of the ear canal and eardrops that inhibit bacterial growth.  Mild acid solutions such as boric or acetic acid are effective for early infections. 

For more severe infections, if you do not have a perforated eardrum, ear cleaning may be helped by antibiotics.  If the ear canal is swollen shut, a sponge or wick may be placed in the ear canal so that the antibiotic drops will be effective.  Pain medication may also be prescribed. 

Follow-up appointments are very important to monitor progress of the infection, to repeat ear cleaning, and to replace the ear wick as needed.
Your otolaryngologist has specialized equipment and expertise to effectively clean the ear canal and treat swimmer’s ear.

Signs and Symptoms
The most common symptoms of swimmer’s ear are mild to moderate pain that is aggravated by tugging on the outer ear and an itchy ear.  Other symptoms may include any of the following:
•     Sensation that the ear is                        blocked or full
•     Drainage
•     Fever
•     Decreased hearing
•           Swollen lymph nodes
•    
Intense pain that may radiate to the neck, face, or side of the head
•          
The outer ear may appear to be pushed forward or away from the skull

Why Do Ears Itch?
An itchy ear is a maddening symptom. Sometimes it is caused by a fungus or allergy, but more often it is a chronic dermatitis (skin inflammation) of the ear canal. One type is seborrheia dermatitis, a condition similar to dandruff in the scalp; the wax is dry, flaky, and abundant. Some patients with this problem will do well to decrease their intake of foods that aggravate it, such as greasy foods, carbohydrates (sugar and starches), and chocolate. Doctors often prescribe a cortisone eardrop at bedtime when the ears itch. There is no long-term cure, but it can be kept controlled.

Prevention
A dry ear is unlikely to become infected, so it is important to keep the ears free of moisture after swimming or bathing.  Q-tips should not be used for this purpose, because they may pack material deeper into the ear canal, remove protective earwax, and irritate the thin skin of the ear canal creating the perfect environment for an infection.  The safest way to dry your ears is with a hair blow-dryer.  If you do not have a perforated eardrum, rubbing alcohol or a 50:50 mixture alcohol and vinegar used as eardrops will evaporate excess water and keep your ears dry.  Before using any drops in the ear, it is important to verify that you do not have a perforated eardrum.  Check with your otolaryngologist if you have ever had a perforated, punctured, or injured eardrum, or if you have had ear surgery.

People with itchy ears, flaky or scaly ears, or extensive earwax are more likely to develop swimmer’s ear.  If so, it may be helpful to have your ears cleaned periodically by an otolaryngologist.


© 2007 Stefan Kieserman, M.D.

  Any information provided on this Web site should not be considered medical advice or a substitute for a consultation with a physician. If you have a medical problem, contact your local physician for diagnosis and treatment

   
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s seborrheic dermatitis, a condition similar to dandruff in the scalp; the skin is dry, flaky, thickened, and inflammed (irritated). This may be aggravated by certain food groups. Some patients with this problem will do well to decrease their intake of foods that aggravate it, such as greasy foods, carbohydrates (sugar and starches), and chocolate.
An otolaryngologist, a physician who specializes in the structures of the head and neck, also treats allergies. They often prescribe a steroid-containing eardrop, cream or ointment to treat the problem and to be used as needed when the ears itch. There is no long-term cure, but it can be kept controlled.

Tips for prevention
A dry ear is unlikely to become infected, so it is important to keep the ears free of moisture during swimming or bathing.
Do:
• use ear plugs when swimming
• use a dry towel or hair dryer (being mindful of moderate temperature and limitations of usage) to dry your ears
• have your ears cleaned periodically by an otolaryngologist if you have itchy, flaky or scaly ears, or extensive earwax

Don’t:
• use cotton swabs. They may pack ear wax and dirt deeper into the ear canal, remove the layer of earwax that protects your ear, and irritate the thin skin of the ear canal creating the perfect environment for infection.
 

© 2007 Stefan Kieserman, M.D.

  Any information provided on this Web site should not be considered medical advice or a substitute for a consultation with a physician. If you have a medical problem, contact your local physician for diagnosis and treatment

   
  HOME    PRIVACY    DISCLAIMER