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Swimmer’s ear

What causes swimmer’s ear?

Swimmer’s ear, medically referred to otitis externa, is an inflammation or infection of the outer ear canal. Under normal conditions the skin of the ear is protected by waxy, water repellent secretions from sebaceous and apocrine glands. However, when these normal barriers are lost the skin becomes inflamed and macerated. Which increases the risk of invasion from bacterial or fungal organisms.

A common cause of breakdown of this barrier happens when water enters the ear canal and doesn’t drain out, such as when you go swimming or wash your hair. When the ear canal is wet for a long period of time, the skin becomes soft and ‘soggy’. This not only makes it more susceptible to injury, it also makes an ideal environment for bacteria or fungi to flourish and cause an infection.

Other causes may include:

  • Cleaning inside the ear canal with cotton buds, fingertips and other objects.
  • Chemicals such as hairsprays, shampoos and hair dyes that may irritate and break the fragile skin.
  • Skin conditions such as eczema or dermatitis where the skin is flaky or broken, and does not act as a protective barrier
  • Inadequate wax production that protects the ear canal.
  • Wearing of hearing aids, earphones, and diving caps.


Swimmer’s ear symptoms

Symptoms include:

  • Pain and tenderness in the ear canal.
  • The outer ear may be sensitive and sore, even to the lightest touch or movement.
  • Itchiness.
  • Foul smelling yellow or green pus in the ear canal.
  • A high temperature (fever).
  • Reduced hearing.
  • Noises inside the ear, such as buzzing, humming or ringing (tinnitus).


Treatment for swimmer’s ear

Treatment is aimed at cleaning the canal and keeping it dry. In mild cases a doctor or nurse may clean the outer ear canal using a light suction device, called microsuction, and then prescribe an ointment or ear drops for you to use at home.

A swab (sterile cotton wool on a stick) may be taken of the pus to test for bacteria or fungi.

Sometimes antibiotics are needed. Take the full course as prescribed, even if you feel better after a day or two.


How to prevent swimmer’s ear

Any water activities like swimming, surfing and diving should be avoided for the duration of the infection and for at least one week after.

When washing your hair, tip your head forward and your ears will act as umbrellas. This will minimise the amount of water that enters your ear canals.

Ear plugs or cotton wool coated in Vaseline to keep water out of your ear canal are good options when swimming or bathing.

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