Otitis externa, or swimmer's ear, is an infection that affects that outer ear and ear canal. It is usually caused when the ear has been exposed to too much moisture. The infection occurs when water collects in the ear, causing the ear to become damp.
In turn, the ear becomes a breeding ground for harmful bacteria. Cuts and scrapes along the ear canal lining can also cause bacterial infection. People who swim in polluted water, scratch the inside of the ear, or who have an object stuck in the ear may contract otitis externa.
When a person has swimmer's ear, the ear itches and feels as if it is clogged. The ear canal will begin to swell and drain liquid, causing a great deal of pain. Next, the ear canal will swell closed. The side of the face with the infected ear will begin to swell as well. Finally, the neck glands will grow larger, making it nearly impossible to open and close the jaw.
Patients suffering from otitis externa should use ear plugs when showering or swimming in order to prevent water from entering the ear canal. They should avoid scratching the ear as well, refraining from the use of cotton ear swabs. A doctor will prescribe antibiotic medication or corticosteroids to help cure this particular condition. Ear drops are common medicines the patient will be instructed to use, but they may also need to take oral antibiotics. The patient may also need to suction the ear canal in order to keep the canal free of debris and bacteria.
If otitis externa is left untreated, complications can arise. Chronic otitis externa, malignant otitis externa, and the spread of the infection to other parts of the body, are all possible complications that may result if otitis externa is not treated by a doctor. These complications may cause serious health problems involving the brain, skull, or cranial nerves.
In order to prevent swimmer's ear, it's important to leave ear wax inside the canal. This is because ear wax serves as a natural defense against otitis externa. Another way to prevent the condition is to keep ears dry. For example, after a person showers or takes a swim, he or she should thoroughly dry the ears with a clean towel.
Holding a hair dryer several inches away from the ear is another effective way to completely dry the ears and protect them from swimmer's ear. Tight fitting swim caps should be worn while swimming if swimmer's ear is a recurring problem. Those who must wear hearing aids should only wear hypoallergenic silicone models if they frequently contract swimmer's ear.