Swimmer’s ear: a summer pain

July 05, 2012 By Lorraine Binns-Grear, M.D.

The warm summer weather is associated with fun-filled days at the pool or beach. Unfortunately, the ailment known as swimmer's ear (otitis externa) can be an unwanted souvenir from a day spent poolside.

This itchy, painful nuisance is usually brought on by water that gets logged in the ear, creating a warm, humid environment for bacteria to grow. Hence, any activity that provides such an environment in the ear canal – like working-out, sitting in a sauna or even showering – can make one susceptible, any time of year. Another form of bacterial introduction is by scratching and inflaming the thin skin tissue in the ear canal, often occurring through the use of ear swabs or other foreign objects.

Whereas contracting swimmer's ear due to prime environmental conditions is usually short-term, some may suffer from chronic swimmer's ear if one already has other chronic skin conditions like eczema or psoriasis. Recurring swimmer's ear may also result from an allergic reaction to certain skin or hair products, and in some cases, jewelry.

Aside from itchiness, other symptoms to watch for include:
• yellow/yellow-green puss-like drainage
• foul-smelling drainage
• increase in pain when slightly tugging on the outer ear
• hearing loss

If you are experiencing one or more of these symptoms, contact your physician as the condition may worsen and cause damage to the inner ear/ear drum if left untreated. The most typical treatments are minimally uncomfortable, if at all. More than likely, after examining the ear for any redness, swelling, or scaliness, your healthcare practitioner will prescribe an antibiotic, usually ear drops, for 10-14 days use.

Of course, prevention is the best form of medicine. The easiest preventive measure is to gently and carefully dry the ear with a soft cloth or towel after swimming/bathing. Simply tip your head to the side to drain excess water, and lightly dab the ear. Do not rub or exert excessive pressure. If you are an avid swimmer, watch for signs or conditions alerting you to high bacterial counts, especially when swimming in natural bodies of water. Lastly, protect your ear from irritants by covering the ears while applying hair sprays/dyes.

Making these precautions part of your daily routine will contribute to a fun – and healthy – summer for you and your family.

Dr. Lorraine Binns-Grear is a member of The Hospital of Central Connecticut (HOCC) medical staff. For referrals to HOCC physicians, please contact our free Need-A-Physician referral service by phone at 1.800.321.6244.