Otitis Externa: What Is “Swimmer’s Ear?”

What Is Swimmer’s Ear?

swimmer's ear

Otitis externa, more commonly referred to as “swimmer’s ear,” is an inflammation of the ear canal. The name “swimmer’s ear” comes from the fact that many cases of otitis externa happen to swimmers, whose ears are frequently submerged under water, causing water to become trapped in the ear canal. It is a very common condition, with more than 10% of the worldwide population being affected by it at some point in their lives. It is most often found in children and the elderly, and is found equally in males and females. It is most likely to affect individuals who live in warm, wet climates.

Causes

  • Water trapped in the ear canal
  • Bacteria in the ear canal
  • Fungal infections
  • Autoimmune disorders
  • Dermatitis
  • Trauma to the ear
  • Allergies
  • Psoriasis

Types

Acute Otitis Externa

Acute otitis externa refers to swimmer’s ear that lasts less than six weeks and is most often caused by water trapped in the ear canal. This type of otitis externa accounts for over 95% of all cases.

Chronic Otitis Externa

Chronic otitis externa refers to swimmer’s ear that lasts longer than six weeks. It is very rare and is typically caused by autoimmune disorders.

otitis externa

Symptoms

  • Itching in the ear canal
  • Redness inside the ear
  • Fluid drainage
  • Pain in the ear canal
  • Feeling of fullness inside the ear
  • Mild hearing loss
  • Severe pain that may radiate to face, neck or side of the head
  • Complete blockage of ear canal
  • Redness or swelling of outer ear
  • Swelling in the lymph nodes in neck
  • Fever

Diagnosis

Your primary care physician can diagnose otitis externa based on a physical examination of the ear and assessment of your medical history. Some acute cases are diagnosed in urgent care offices due to their sudden onset of symptoms. If your doctor suspects that you have chronic otitis externa, they may refer you to other specialists for diagnostic testing to rule out other conditions.

Treatment

Almost all cases of otitis externa can be treated with a combination of anti-inflammatory medications and antibiotics. Chronic cases may only resolve once the underlying cause is treated or managed.

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