What Is Swimmer's Ear?
If you're like a lot of folks, you probably think of swimmer's ear as an unwelcome souvenir of a beach vacation. And while the painful ear condition is often linked to a dunk in the ocean or the pool, the truth is you can get it on dry land, too.
Swimmer's ear is different from the common ear infection that your young child often gets after a cold. Those are middle ear infections, or "otitis media" in doctor speak, and they happen deeper in the ear, behind the eardrum.
Usually, swimmer's ear is caused by bacteria, but it can sometimes be brought on by a virus or fungus.
What Are the Symptoms of Swimmer's Ear?
- Itchy feeling inside your ear
- Pain in the ear, which can be severe
- Your ear hurts when you move your head or gently pull on your earlobe
- Tender inside your ear
- Fluid drains out of the ear
- A bad-smelling, yellowish discharge from the ear
- You don't hear as well (things sound muffled)
Here's one way to tell which type of ear infection you have:
If it hurts when you tug or press your ear, you may have swimmer's ear.
Why Do People Get Swimmer's Ear?
Most of the time, your ear fights off the germs that cause swimmer's ear on its own. You can thank your earwax for that. While it doesn't get much respect, earwax helps protect the ear canal from damage and makes it hard for germs to grow.
But if the skin gets scratched, germs can get into your ear canal and cause an infection. Some common reasons you may get swimmer's ear are:
Sticking stuff in your ear.
If you use cotton swabs, fingers, hairpins, pen caps, or anything else to clean your ears, it can rub away the protective earwax or scratch your skin. Even ear buds, earplugs, and hearing aids can have this effect, especially if you use them a lot.
Moisture trapped in your ear.
When water gets stuck in your ear canal after swimming -- or after you soak in a hot tub or even take a shower or bath -- it can remove some of the earwax and soften the skin, which makes it easier for germs to get in.
Humid weather and sweat can cause the same problem.
Germs like a warm, wet place to grow, so moisture trapped in your ear is perfect for them.
Other things can play a role in swimmer's ear, like:
Your age. While swimmer's ear can happen to anyone, it's most common in kids and early teenagers.
Narrow ear canals. Kids often have ear canals that are small and don't drain as well.
How to Diagnose and Treat Swimmer's Ear
If you have ear pain, don't wait -- see your doctor right away. Getting treatment quickly can stop an infection from getting worse.
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