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Alternative Names Return to topEar infection - outer ear - acute; Otitis externa - acute
Definition Return to top
Swimmer's ear is inflammation, irritation, or infection of the outer ear and ear canal. The medical term for swimmer's ear is otitis externa.
This article discusses acute swimmer's ear. See also: Swimmer's ear - chronic
Causes Return to top
Swimmer's ear is fairly common, especially among teenagers and young adults.
Causes of swimmer's ear include:
Trying to clean wax from the ear canal, especially with cotton swabs or small objects, can irritate or damage the skin.
Swimmer's ear is occasionally associated with middle ear infection (otitis media) or upper respiratory infections such as colds. Moisture in the ear makes the ear more prone to infection from water-loving bacteria such as pseudomonas. Other bacteria, and rarely, fungi, can also cause infection.
Symptoms Return to top
Exams and Tests Return to top
The doctor will perform a physical exam, which includes looking inside the ears. The ear, including the ear canal, appears red and swollen. The skin inside the ear canal may be scaly or shedding.
Touching or moving the outer ear increases the pain. The eardrum may be difficult for the doctor to see because of a swelling in the outer ear.
The doctor may take a sample of fluid from the ear and send it to a lab so any bacteria or fungus can be identified.
Treatment Return to top
The goal of treatment is to cure the infection. Medicines may include:
The ear canal should be cleaned of drainage. This allows the medicines to work better.
Four or five ear drops should be used at a time, so that the medicine can get into the end of the ear canal. If the ear canal is very swollen, a wick may be applied in the ear to allow the drops to travel to the end of the canal.
Analgesics may be used if the pain is severe. Placing something warm against the ears may reduce pain.
Outlook (Prognosis) Return to top
Swimmer's ear responds well to treatment, but complications may occur if it is not treated. Some individuals with underlying medical problems, such as diabetes, may be more likely to get complications such as malignant otitis externa.
Possible Complications Return to top
When to Contact a Medical Professional Return to top
Call for an appointment with your health care provider if:
Prevention Return to top
Protect ears from further damage.
References Return to top
Pier GB. Pseudomonas and related gram-negative bacillary infections. In: Goldman L, Ausiello D, eds. Cecil Medicine. 23rd ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Saunders Elsevier; 2007: chap 328.
Haddad J. External otitis (otitis externa). In: Kliegman RM, Behrman RE, Jenson HB, Stanton BF, eds. Nelson Textbook of Pediatrics. 18th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Saunders Elsevier; 2007: chap 638.Update Date: 11/10/2008 Updated by: Linda Vorvick, MD, Family Physician, Seattle Site Coordinator, Lecturer, Pathophysiology, MEDEX Northwest Division of Physician Assistant Studies, University of Washington School of Medicine. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M., Inc.