About Swimmer's Ear
Otitis externa - commonly known as swimmer's ear - is an
infection of the ear canal, the tubular opening that carries sounds
from the outside of the body to the eardrum. It can be caused by
many different types of bacteria or fungi.
The infection commonly occurs in kids who spend a lot of time in
the water. Too much moisture in the ear can irritate and break down
the skin in the canal, allowing bacteria or fungi to penetrate. In
temperate climates, otitis externa occurs more often in summertime,
when swimming is common.
But you don't have to swim to get swimmer's ear.
Anything that causes a break in the skin of the ear canal can lead
to an infection. Dry skin or
, scratching the ear canal, vigorous ear cleaning with
cotton-tipped applicators, or inserting foreign objects like bobby
pins or paper clips into the ear can all increase the risk of
developing otitis externa.
And if someone has a
middle ear infection
, pus collected in the middle ear can drain into the ear canal
through a hole in the eardrum and cause otitis externa.
Signs and Symptoms
The primary symptom of otitis externa is ear pain, which can be
severe and gets worse when the earlobe or other exterior part of
the ear is pulled or pressed on. It may also be painful for a
person with otitis externa to chew. Sometimes the ear canal itches
before the pain begins.
Swelling of the ear canal may make your child complain of a full
or uncomfortable feeling in the ear. The outer ear may become
reddened or swollen, and lymph nodes around the ear may become
enlarged and tender. There may be some discharge from the ear canal
as well; it may be clear at first but then turn cloudy, yellowish,
and pus-like. Hearing may temporarily be affected if pus and debris
or swelling of the canal blocks the passage of sound into the ear.
Fever is not common in typical cases of otitis externa.
Otitis externa is not contagious.
Using over-the-counter drops of a dilute solution of acetic acid
or alcohol in the ears after getting them wet can help prevent
otitis externa, especially if a child is prone to the infection.
These drops are available at pharmacies and should only be used in
kids who do not have ear tubes or a hole in the eardrum.
After time in the water, kids should gently dry their ears with
a towel and help water run out of their ears by turning their heads
to the side. Speak with your doctor before using earplugs.
To avoid trauma to the ear, kids should not clean their ears
themselves and should never put objects into their ears, including
Treatment of otitis externa depends on the severity of the
infection and how much pain the child feels. For milder cases, your
doctor may prescribe eardrops that contain
to fight the infection and a steroid to reduce swelling of the ear
canal. Eardrops are usually given several times a day for 7 to 10
If swelling of the ear canal makes it difficult to give the
drops, the doctor may insert a cotton wick into the canal to help
carry the medicine inside the ear. In some cases, the doctor may
need to remove pus and debris from the ear with gentle cleaning or
suction. This will allow the eardrops to work more effectively. For
more severe infections, oral antibiotics also may be given, and the
doctor may order a culture of some of the discharge from the ear to
help identify which bacteria or fungi are causing the
Over-the-counter pain relievers can be used to manage pain. Once
treatment has begun, your child will start to feel better in a day
or two. Otitis externa is usually cured within 7 to 10 days of
Otitis externa should be treated by a doctor. If left untreated,
the ear pain will get worse and the infection may spread. To help
relieve the pain until your child sees the doctor, you can place a
warm washcloth or heating pad against the affected ear.
Acetaminophen or ibuprofen may also ease discomfort.
At home, follow the doctor's instructions for administering
eardrops and oral antibiotics, if they are prescribed. It's
important to keep water out of your child's ear during the
entire course of treatment. A shower cap offers protection while
showering or bathing, and your doctor may also recommend
When to Call the Doctor
Call your doctor immediately if your child has any of the
following: pain in the ear with or without fever, decreased hearing
in one or both ears, or abnormal discharge from the ear.
Steven Dowshen, MD
Date reviewed: March 2006
Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice,
diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor.
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