What is swimmer's ear?

Swimmer's ear in teens: Overview

Swimmer's ear (otitis externa) is inflammation or infection of the ear canal, the passage that leads from the outer ear to the eardrum. Any water, sand, or other debris that gets into the ear canal and stays there can cause swimmer's ear. Inserting cotton swabs or other items in the ear to clean it can also cause swimmer's ear.

Swimmer's ear can be very painful. But if you treat the pain and infection with medicines, you should feel better in a few days.

Otitis Externa

Otitis externa is an inflammation or infection of the ear canal (the passage leading from the external ear to the eardrum) that may develop when water, sand, dirt, or other debris gets into the ear canal.

Symptoms of otitis externa (also called swimmer's ear) are pain in and discharge from the ear.

Other causes of inflammation or infection of the ear canal include:

  • Scratching the ear canal with a cotton swab or a sharp object.
  • Chronic skin conditions, such as eczema or dermatitis.
  • Excessive cleaning of the ear canal.
  • Bubble baths and shampoos.

Treatment for otitis externa may include nonprescription pain relievers and antibiotic ear drops (with or without steroids).

What are the symptoms of swimmer's ear?

Swimmer's ear can be very painful. The pain can get worse when you touch the earlobe or another part of the outer ear or when you chew. Other symptoms can include itching, a feeling of fullness in the ear, and a yellowish or brownish discharge from the ear. Your ear canal may be swollen. In severe cases, the outer ear can be red and swollen too.

How is swimmer's ear treated?

If your doctor prescribed eardrops, use them as directed. Ask your doctor about using nonprescription eardrops. Take over-the-counter pain medicines as directed. Avoid getting water in your ear while it's healing. Always check with your doctor before putting anything in your ear. Do not use ear candles.

How can you prevent swimmer's ear?

You may be able to prevent swimmer's ear.

  • Do not scratch or clean the inside of the ear with cotton swabs, bobby pins, your fingernails, or other objects.
  • Avoid prolonged use of earplugs and in-ear headphones. Like cotton swabs, these can cause irritation and itching and can plug the ear with wax.
  • Keep soap, bubble bath, and shampoo out of the ear canal. These products can cause itching and irritation.
  • Keep your ears dry.
    • After you swim or shower, shake your head to remove water from the ear canal.
    • Gently dry your ears with the corner of a tissue or towel, or use a hair dryer on its lowest setting. Hold the dryer several inches away from the ear.
    • Put a few drops of rubbing alcohol or rubbing alcohol mixed with an equal amount of white vinegar in your ears after you swim or shower. You can also use over-the-counter drops, such as Swim-Ear, to help prevent swimmer's ear. Gently wiggle the outside of the ear to let the liquid enter the ear canal. It's important to keep the liquid in the ear canal for 3 to 5 minutes
  • Do not swim in dirty or polluted water.

How is swimmer's ear diagnosed?

A doctor can usually tell whether you have swimmer's ear by looking into your ear and asking questions about your symptoms.

Teens: How can you care for swimmer's ear?

Cleaning and care

  • Use antibiotic drops exactly as directed by your doctor.
  • Do not insert eardrops (other than the antibiotic eardrops) or anything else into the ear unless your doctor has told you to.
  • Avoid getting water in the ear until the problem clears up. Use cotton lightly coated with petroleum jelly as an earplug. Do not use plastic earplugs.
  • Use a hair dryer to carefully dry the ear after you shower. Make sure the dryer is on the lowest heat setting.
  • To ease ear pain, hold a warm washcloth against your ear.
  • Be safe with medicines. Read and follow all instructions on the label.
    • If the doctor gave you a prescription medicine for pain, take it as prescribed.
    • If you are not taking a prescription pain medicine, ask your doctor if you can take an over-the-counter medicine.
    • No one younger than 20 should take aspirin. It has been linked to Reye syndrome, a serious illness.

Inserting eardrops

  • Warm the drops to body temperature by rolling the container in your hands or placing it in a cup of warm water for a few minutes.
  • Lie down, with your ear facing up.
  • Place drops inside the ear. Follow your doctor's instructions (or the directions on the label) for how many drops to use. Gently wiggle the outer ear or pull the ear up and back to help the drops get into the ear.
  • It's important to keep the liquid in the ear canal for 3 to 5 minutes.

What is swimmer's ear?

Swimmer's ear (otitis externa) is an inflammation or infection of the ear canal, the passage that leads from the outer ear to the eardrum. This condition is called swimmer's ear, because it commonly occurs in people who have been swimming. But other people can get it too.

What causes swimmer's ear?

You can get swimmer's ear when bacteria or fungus grows in your ear canal. This happens when water, sand, or other small debris irritates the delicate skin in the ear canal. Other things that can irritate the ear canal include hearing aids, lots of ear cleaning, and eczema of the ear canal.

Swimmer's ear is more likely if you have a very narrow or hairy ear canal; live in a warm, humid climate; have little or no earwax; have lots of ear infections; or have eczema or dry skin. If you have had swimmer's ear in the past, you are more likely to get it again.

Swimmer's ear in teens: When to call

Call your doctor now or seek immediate medical care if:

  • You have a new or higher fever.
  • You have new or worse pain, swelling, warmth, or redness around or behind your ear.
  • You have new or increasing pus or blood draining from your ear.

Watch closely for changes in your health, and be sure to contact your doctor if:

  • You do not get better after 2 days (48 hours).

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