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Home > Patient & Family Resources > Health Library > Ear Canal Problems (Swimmer's Ear)
Swimmer's ear (otitis externa) is a painful inflammation and infection of the ear canal. It occurs when the protective film that covers the ear canal (lipid layer) is removed. This causes the ear canal to look red and swollen. The ear canal may be narrower than normal and is tender when the outside of the ear is gently pulled up and back.
Swimmer's ear may develop when water, sand, dirt, or other debris gets into the ear canal. Since it often occurs when excess water enters the ear canal, a common name for this inflammation is "swimmer's ear." If you have had swimmer's ear in the past, you are more likely to get it again.
A rare but serious infection called malignant external otitis can develop if bacteria invade the bones inside the ear canal and spread to the base of the skull. Not many people get this infection—it is mainly seen in older adults who also have diabetes, people who have HIV, and children who have impaired immune systems—but it can be fatal. Symptoms include ear pain with sudden facial paralysis, hoarseness, and throat pain. Antibiotics are used to treat this infection.
Other causes of inflammation or infection of the ear canal include:
You are more likely to get swimmer's ear if:
Symptoms can include itching, pain, and a feeling of fullness in the ear. Your ear canal may be swollen. You may have moderate to severe pain, drainage, or hearing loss. Unlike a middle ear infection (acute otitis media), the pain is worse when you chew, press on the "tag" in front of the ear, or wiggle your earlobe.
You may be able to prevent swimmer's ear. Symptoms often get better or go away with home treatment.
Check your symptoms to decide if and when you should see a doctor.
Many things can affect how your body responds to a symptom and what kind of care you may need. These include:
You have answered all the questions. Based on your answers, you may be able to take care of this problem at home.
Vertigo is the feeling that you or your surroundings are moving when there is no actual movement. It may feel like spinning, whirling, or tilting. Vertigo may make you sick to your stomach, and you may have trouble standing, walking, or keeping your balance.
Symptoms of an infection in the ear canal (swimmer's ear) may include:
Symptoms of an inner ear infection may include:
Certain health conditions and medicines weaken the immune system's ability to fight off infection and illness. Some examples in adults are:
Certain health conditions and medicines weaken the immune system's ability to fight off infection and illness. Some examples in children are:
Based on your answers, you may need care soon. The problem probably will not get better without medical care.
Based on your answers, the problem may not improve without medical care.
Based on your answers, you may need care right away. The problem is likely to get worse without medical care.
Some home treatment can help swimmer's ear. But it is important to see a doctor first. If your doctor says it's okay, you can try the following:
Try a nonprescription medicine to help treat your fever or pain:
Talk to your child's doctor before switching back and forth between doses of acetaminophen and ibuprofen. When you switch between two medicines, there is a chance your child will get too much medicine.
Be sure to follow these safety tips when you use a nonprescription medicine:
Call your doctor if any of the following occur during home treatment:
In most cases, it is best to leave your ears alone and let them maintain their own healthy, natural balance.
To prepare for your appointment, see the topicMaking the Most of Your Appointment.
You can help your doctor diagnose and treat your condition by being prepared to answer the following questions:
Current as ofJune 26, 2019
Author: Healthwise StaffMedical Review: William H. Blahd Jr. MD, FACEP - Emergency MedicineKathleen Romito MD - Family MedicineAdam Husney MD - Family Medicine
Current as of:
June 26, 2019
Medical Review:William H. Blahd Jr. MD, FACEP - Emergency Medicine & Kathleen Romito MD - Family Medicine & Adam Husney MD - Family Medicine
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