Otitis externa or swimmer's ear

What is swimmer's ear?

Also known as swimmer’s ear, otitis externa is a condition that affects the ear canal. When experiencing otitis externa, the external ear canal which leads from the outer part of the ear to the eardrum, becomes inflamed and uncomfortable. It is a common infection affecting people of all ages, from children to adults.

Symptoms of swimmer's ear

Otitis externa (swimmer's ear) commonly leaves the ear canal looking swollen and red, with additional symptoms including:

  • Pain in the ear
  • Scaling of the skin
  • Itchiness within the ear 
  • Pressure within the ear
  • Tenderness when moving the ear or jaw
  • Difficulty hearing
  • Discharge from within the ear
  • Fever

Otitis media tends to affect one ear at a time.

Causes of swimmer's ear

Most cases of otitis externa are caused by a bacterial or fungal infection that occurs after the external ear canal is left wet for a period of time. The damp environment that develops after swimming, bathing or excessive sweating encourages the growth of bacteria and fungi, which, in turn, leads to an infection.

Although bacteria and fungi are among the most common causes, otitis externa can also be caused by other dermatological conditions such as eczema, psoriasis, dermatitis, acne or skin allergies.

Getting water in your ear on a regular basis and damaging the skin within your ear can make you more susceptible to developing otitis externa. The use of some hairsprays, hair dyes and shampoos may also irritate the skin of the outer ear canal, leading to breaks in the skin that make it easier for fungi and bacteria to thrive.

A woman wearing her earrings next to her hearing aid

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Preventing swimmer's ear

To help avoid developing otitis externa, try to avoid:

  • Getting water in your ears
  • Swimming in dirty water
  • Putting objects in your ear

If you swim frequently, wearing earplugs or a swimming cap can help to reduce the amount of water that enters your ears. It’s also important to dry your ears after swimming or bathing. 

How long does swimmer's ear last?

With proper treatment, swimmer's ear can clear up in 7 to 10 days. If you are still experiencing symptoms after 10 days of treatment, call your GP.

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How do you treat swimmer's ear?

If you believe you have otitis externa, book an appointment with your GP.  If your case of swimmer's ear is quite mild, your GP may choose to clean your ear canal before prescribing antibiotic ear drops. 

While you’re undertaking treatment for otitis externa, it's important to avoid getting the affected ear wet. It is also a good idea to remove earrings, hearing aids and earplugs to help prevent the infection spreading further.
With the correct treatment, many symptoms of otitis externa will clear over the course of a few days. More persistent cases may see symptoms continue for several months.

Untreated swimmer's ear consequences

If left untreated, swimmer’s ear can cause other issues such as:

  • Swollen and inflamed ear canals from swimmer’s ear can cause temporary hearing loss. Hearing usually returns back to normal once the infection clears up.
  • Chronic otitis externa, which can cause you to experience swimmer’s ear for 3 months at a time
  • Recurring ear infections
  • Bone and cartilage damage
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