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What is swimmer's ear (otitis externa)?

Swimmer’s ear (otitis externa) is an infection of the skin of the ear canal. This often occurs when water becomes trapped in the ear canal making it swell and easier to become infected. Other causes of otitis externa are foreign objects that scratch the ear canal such as cotton swabs, paper clips, bobby pins and pencils.

Otitis externa, more commonly known as swimmer's ear, is an infection of the ear and/or outer ear canal. It can cause the ear to itch or become red and swollen so that touching of or pressure on the ear is very painful. There may also be pus that drains from the ear. Antibiotics are usually needed to treat otitis externa.

Swimmer's ear is a very common infection occurring more frequently during summer months because of high humidity, heat and exposure of the ear canal to bacteria-laden waters. Swimmer's ear is actually an inflammation of the external ear canal and the (wax producing) cerumen glands that line it. The root of the problem? It is an absence of ear wax which protects the thin skin of the ear canal both chemically and by acting as a barrier against germs. Sufferers usually complain of sharp pain in and around the ear and jaw and hearing loss. They may also have severe itching in the ear canal, which, if scratched, will worsen the condition.

Dr. David M. Vernick, MD
Ear, Nose & Throat (ENT Specialist)

Otitis externa, a bacterial or fungal infection of the skin lining the canal of the outer ear, is more common in adults than children. Otitis externa is also called swimmer's ear because it occurs most often during the summer and tends to affect swimmers and divers. Scratching the outer ear poses an even bigger risk than swimming or diving, since broken skin allows germs to enter and infect the area. The infection can lead to hearing loss by causing a discharge or swelling in the ear canal. Individuals with diabetes or conditions that suppress the immune system, such as human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) infection, are vulnerable to an especially serious kind of otitis externa, which can spread rapidly to the skull or brain.

Swimmer's ear is an infection of the ear canal. Doctors call it external otitis.

Symptoms of swimmer's ear include:

  • Itching of the ear canal
  • Redness of the skin of the outer ear or ear canal
  • Drainage from the ear canal (often yellow, green or possibly cheesy)
  • Pain when touching the ear or moving the jaw while chewing or talking
  • Decreased hearing from debris that clogs the ear canal

Swimmer's ear can be caused by bacteria or fungi. It is called swimmer's ear because it is associated with frequent swimming. Long and frequent exposure to water makes the skin of the ear canal more susceptible to infection. Warm and humid conditions can do the same thing. That's why swimmer's ear is most common in the summer.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.