July 19, 2023

Swimmer's Ear: Causes, Symptoms, and Treatment

By Dr. Kevin Rankins

This is the best time of year to be in New Hampshire. The rain has slowed and temperatures are rising.  It’s time to jump in the pool, lake, or ocean. Unfortunately, swimming is the greatest risk factor for developing a common infection of the ear called swimmer’s ear.

Swimmer's ear, also known as otitis externa, is a common and often painful condition that affects people who frequently expose their ears to water. Increased moisture in the ear canal promotes bacterial growth and typically needs to be treated with antibiotics. Recognizing the causes, symptoms, and appropriate treatment for swimmer's ear is crucial for prompt relief and prevention of complications.

Causes of Swimmer’s Ear

Factors that increase the risk of developing swimmer's ear include excessive moisture in the ear canal, scratches or irritation to the skin lining the canal, or a decrease in the ear's natural protective barrier, such as the use of cotton swabs.

Symptoms of Swimmer’s Ear

The symptoms of swimmer's ear can vary in severity and may include:

  • Itching or discomfort in the ear canal
  • Pain, which can range from mild to severe and worsens when the earlobe is pulled or pressed
  • Redness and swelling of the ear canal
  • Drainage of clear, odorless fluid or pus
  • Muffled hearing or temporary hearing loss
  • Tenderness or pain when moving the jaw or head

Treatment of Swimmer’s Ear

When symptoms of swimmer's ear arise, seek medical attention from your primary care physician or urgent care facility. Prompt diagnosis and treatment of swimmer's ear can reduce the risk of complications. Common treatment includes:

  • Ear Drops: Prescription ear drops containing antibiotics may be administered to treat the infection. These drops are often combined with steroids to reduce inflammation and alleviate pain.
  • Ear Wick: A health care provider may place a small sponge called an ear wick in the ear canal to help carry the medication into the swollen ear canal.
  • Pain Management: Over-the-counter pain relievers such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen may be suggested to manage pain and discomfort.

Recognizing the causes and symptoms as well as seeking appropriate treatment is essential for relief and preventing complications of swimmer’s ear. Elliot Urgent Care at LondonderryElliot Urgent Care at Bedford, and Elliot Urgent Care at River’s Edge in Manchester provide board-certified emergency room physicians and specialized clinical staff and offer advanced diagnostic capabilities to treat patients of all ages for non-life-threatening illnesses and injuries, including swimmer’s ear. Check current wait times here.

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