Swimmer’s ear involves an infection of the ear canal (the tubular opening that carries sounds from the outside of the body to the eardrum). The infection can be caused by many different types of bacteria or fungi, and usually develops in teens and young adults whose ears are exposed to excessive amounts of water, such as the water in a swimming pool or lake. Often, people affected by swimmer’s ear have been diving or swimming for long periods of time, and usually in chlorinated or polluted waters, although even water from the shower can transport infectious bacteria directly into the ear canal. Swimmer’s ear is most common in warm climates and occurs more often during the summer months, when more people are swimming. The infection typically begins gradually and usually within a day of being immersed in water.
Symptoms of swimmer’s ear include:
- Severe ear pain that gets worse when the outside part of the ear (also known as the pinna), is pulled or pressed. (Itching may also occur in the ear canal before the pain begins.)
- A reddened or swollen outer ear, with enlarged and tender surrounding glands.
- A greenish-yellow pus discharge along with possible difficultly in hearing (if passage of sound through the ear canal is blocked by the pus buildup).
- A slight fever, in some cases.
Seek emergency care if you have any of the following symptoms:
- Pain in an ear with or without fever.
- Itching of the ear or ear canal.
- Loss of hearing or difficulty hearing in one or both ears.
- Pus or discharge from an ear, especially if it’s thick, yellow, bloody, or foul-smelling.
Medical treatment of swimmer’s ear will depend on the severity of the pain and the extent of infection. Mild infections may require your doctor to prescribe eardrops with antibiotics or corticosteroids. If treated with medication, swimmer’s ear is usually cured within seven to 10 days, although you may need to avoid the water for a longer time. In addition, ear pain may increase for 12 to 24 hours following treatment, after which it should subside.
In more severe cases of swimmer’s ear, the opening into the ear may be narrowed by swelling, in which case the ear may need to be cleaned and a cotton wick inserted before the eardrops can be applied. In addition, a culture of the ear may be taken to help identify the cause of the infection, and oral antibiotics may be prescribed.