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 the 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, but it also makes an ideal environment for bacteria or fungi to flourish and cause an infection.

Other causes and contributing conditions may include:

  • Cleaning inside the ear canal with cotton buds, hair clips or other sharp objects.
  • Shampoos, hairsprays and hair dyes that may irritate and emaciate your skin.
  • Eczema or dermatitis causing your skin to break and no longer act as a protective barrier.
  • Insufficient (cerumen) earwax production to protect your ear canal.
1. Pain and tenderness in the ear canal
2. The outer ear may be very sensitive and sore
3. Itchiness in and around the ear
4. Foul smelling pus in the ear canal
5. Fever
6. Deafness
7. Itchiness in or around your ears
8. Noises in the ear, such as ringing, buzzing or humming

8 Possible Symptoms of Swimmer's Ear

Ear pain is the most common complaint about swimmer's ear or otitis externa. With enough swelling and discharge conductive hearing loss is also common.


Treatment for Swimmer’s Ear

Treatment is aimed at cleaning the ear canal and keeping it dry.

In mild cases, a nurse may clean the outer ear canal using a light suction device, called Microsuction. A doctor may also prescribe an ointment or ear drops for you to use at home.

A test swab might be taken and sent to a pathology lab to identify a bacterial or fungal infection. 

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

Mild Swimmer's Ear or Otitis Externa
Mild Swimmer’s Ear

How to Prevent Swimmer’s Ear

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

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.

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

What do I do if I have swimmer's ear?

Hover here to find out!

Keep your ears dry and seek medical assistance

Contact your General Practitioner
Call Healthline on 0800 611 116
Contact Your Nearest Ear Nurse

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