Ouch – possibly accompanied by a sour facial expression – that’s the typical, knee-jerk reaction to one of summer’s most annoying infections: swimmer’s ear.
Swimmer’s ear, referred to as external otitis, which is different from other ear infections, such as the kind that accompany a cold or sinus infection, that affect a deeper part of the ear canal.
Swimming Is the Primary, But Not the Only, Cause of Swimmer’s Ear
“It’s called swimmer’s ear because [swimming] is one of the most common causes,” John Nurre II MD, an Ear, Nose, Throat doctor at Group Health, explains. “It can be caused by a lot of other things besides swimming, such as showering, rain water and even heavy sweating and high humidity.”
The ear canal is dark and warm. When you add moisture to the mix, it’s the perfect breeding ground for bacteria growth. However, while swimmer’s ear is usually caused by bacteria, it can also be caused by a fungus – the same fungus that causes athlete’s foot – leading to “an extremely painful ear,” he adds.
Do I Need to See My Doctor About Swimmer’s Ear?
If you notice symptoms of swimmer’s ear, including pain when you push or pull on the ear, or redness and swelling, schedule an appointment with your doctor. While treating it is often as simple as using ear drops containing antibiotics for 10 to 14 days, in rare cases, it can be fatal.
You can’t always tell how severe it is from the symptoms and it can cause infection around the ear called cellulitis, a deep tissue infection. “People with diabetes or some condition that affects their immune system can get an even more severe form of this that can be life-threatening,” Dr. Nurre says.
In terms of prevention, unfortunately, there’s not a whole lot you can do. If you tend to get swimmer’s ear often, Dr. Nurre says to:
- Remove water from your ear, when necessary, with a tissue or by shaking your head sideways.
- Use over-the-counter drops, which are usually a combination of alcohol and vinegar and have a drying effect.