Otitis externa is an infection of the ear canal caused by bacteria or fungi. It often is called swimmer's ear because it is associated with frequent swimming. Prolonged exposure to water, which may contain certain bacteria, makes the skin of the ear canal swollen and more likely to get infected. Summer humidity also changes the skin of the ear canal, increasing the possibility of infection.
While swimmer's ear is most common in the summer, it can happen any time of the year. People with skin conditions such as eczema and seborrhea may be more prone to infections. Others who are more likely to develop swimmer's ear include people who:
Symptoms of swimmer's ear include:
Swimmer's ear usually is diagnosed by examining the ear with a special viewing tool called an otoscope. The doctor looks for:
In rare cases, a culture of the drainage is necessary. For a culture, a sample of the draining fluid is treated in a laboratory to see what bacteria or fungi grow. Your doctor also may examine the eardrum to look for signs of middle ear infection.
With treatment, symptoms usually improve within 1 to 3 days and go away completely in 7 to 10 days. The problem can return, especially if you don't take steps to prevent getting water in the ear canals repeatedly.
To help prevent swimmer's ear:
Swimmer's ear usually is treated with prescription eardrops. The most commonly used drops combine medications to fight the infection (polymyxin and neomycin) and calm the inflammation (hydrocortisone). Drops usually are placed in the ear canal three or four times per day for about five days. Follow the instructions on your prescription.
In people who are allergic to neomycin, the use of these drops may cause the ear canal to become red and swell. The reaction may extend to the outer ear and surrounding skin and may be accompanied by blisters. If you get a reaction like this, stop using the eardrops and contact your doctor immediately.
In severe cases of swimmer's ear, swelling may make it difficult for the medicated drops to get down into the ear canal. In these cases, your doctor may place a wick in the ear canal to help the eardrops get deeper into the canal.
The treatment of swimmer's ear usually requires prescription medication. Call your doctor if you or your child has symptoms of this condition.
With treatment, symptoms usually improve within 24 hours and go away in two or three days. If you currently are being treated for swimmer's ear, call your doctor for follow-up if:
Some people, particularly those who have diabetes or other immune system problems, can develop a severe form of this condition known as malignant otitis externa that requires immediate hospitalization for treatment with intravenous antibiotics. If you have diabetes, AIDS or another condition that makes you more susceptible to infections, contact your doctor immediately if you develop symptoms of swimmer's ear.
Uncomplicated cases of swimmer's ear should go away within five days with appropriate treatment. Muffled hearing should return to normal as the swelling subsides.
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