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Swimmer's Ear Common - and Preventable

< May. 25, 2011 > -- It's nearly summer - time for romping on the beach, lounging by the pool, and suffering a painful bout of swimmer's ear.

Photo of two girls with their heads in the water at poolside

Swimmer's ear, also called otitis externa, is a common infection of the outer ear canal. It's caused when bacteria flourish in an ear left wet by swimming, bathing, or other water activities.

The infection is so common that it results in 2.4 million doctor visits each year in the U.S., with each visit costing an average of $200, the CDC says in a recent report, which examined data from 2003 to 2007. When added up, the annual costs for diagnosing and treating swimmer's ear reach nearly $500 million.

During the study period, children 5 to 14 years old had the highest rates of doctor visits for swimmer's ear, and teens, the second highest rate.

Summertime woe

Although swimmer's ear can occur at any time of year, 44 percent of cases occurred in the summer months of June, July, and August. Warm temperatures and high humidity raise the risk for developing the infection.

Swimmer's ear is usually treated with prescription ear drops.

"By taking simple steps before and after swimming or coming in contact with water, people can greatly reduce their risk of this painful infection," says Michael Beach of the CDC.

These recommendations include:

  • Dry your ears after swimming or showering.

  • If you're around water, try to keep your ears dry.

  • Don't put foreign objects in the ear canal or remove earwax yourself because these can irritate skin inside the ear, possibly leading to an infection.

  • Ask your health care provider if you should use alcohol-based ear drops after swimming.

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Swimmer's Ear: Causes, Symptoms

Swimmer's ear is an exquisitely painful infection of the outer ear canal. Any activity that allows water to enter your ears can cause it. This includes showering, washing your hair, even using a sauna. In fact, just being in a warm, humid climate could do it.

The skin of the ear canal is normally protected by a thick coating of earwax. When water enters the ear, it may bring bacterial or fungal particles. If the water runs back out, the ear dries out and the bacteria and fungi don't cause any problems. But sometimes water remains trapped in the ear canal, washing away the earwax and allowing the skin to get soggy. Then the bacteria and fungi flourish and can infect the outer ear.

See a doctor if any of these symptoms occur:

  • Your ears feel blocked or itch.

  • The ear canal becomes red or swollen, perhaps even swelling shut.

  • A milky fluid drains from your ear.

  • The ear becomes painful and tender to touch, especially the cartilage in front of the ear canal.

Always talk with your health care provider to find out more information.

Online Resources

(Our Organization is not responsible for the content of Internet sites.)

American Academy of Pediatrics - Swimmer’s Ear in Teens

CDC – “Swimmer’s Ear” Otitis Externa

CDC – Estimated Burden of Acute Otitis Externa – U.S., 2003-2007