Diffuse otitis externa or «swimmer’s ear» is an inflammation caused by infection that settles in the skin of the ear canal. It can affect the auricle and the outer layer of the eardrum. It is usually caused by bacteria, most commonly Pseudomonas aeruginosa or Staphylococcus aureus. Other bacteria or fungi may also cause it.
Warm weather and excess humidity are conducive to the emergence of otitis externa, and most people suffer from this infection during summer. Swimming and prolonged bathing are often the cause, hence the name » swimmer’s ear».
Symptoms and treatment
This problem mainly causes pain, which can be quite intense, as well as deafness and a feeling of ear tamponade. Since it is a very localized infection, it usually does not cause fever. The ear may discharge a purulent exudate. Both diagnosis and treatment of this problem must be done by a doctor. A topical antibiotic (antibiotic drops) is usually prescribed, which acts through direct contact with the affected area. Sometimes, due to the high level of inflammation in the ear canal, a small piece of gauze or sponge is inserted into the ear canal so that the medication can penetrate more easily.
The antibiotic drops are applied 2 or 3 times a day and after applying them the head must be placed on its side for a few minutes so that the ear is well infused. In about 7 – 10 days the treatment is over and the symptoms disappear, during which time you should avoid wetting the ear to facilitate the healing process.
The degree of contamination of bathing water has been connected to the appearance of otitis externa, as well as bathing in pools with hot water, hot springs or whirlpool baths. It is therefore essential that water conditions (such as pH or chlorine level) are properly checked and within the appropriate range.
We can protect ourselves from the problem by keeping our ears as dry as possible. After swimming or taking a shower you should dry your ear well with a towel. If water has entered the ear canal, the head can be tilted sideways to make it easier for it to flow out. Never use cotton buds or insert objects into the ear to remove wax or moisture.
In general, if the ear is healthy, it is not necessary to use earplugs for bathing. Earwax coats the skin of the ear canal and serves as a barrier against infection.
If you want more information…
Ear canal infection (MSD Manual)
Swimmer’s ear (Kidshealth.org)
Ear infections, swimmer’s ear (CDC.gov)