Swimmer's ear, otherwise known as acute otitis externa, is an infection of the skin covering the ear and the ear canal usually caused by prolonged exposure to water. According to Melissa Conrad Stoppler, MD, water becomes trapped inside the ear canal, often by wax; the skin becomes soggy and serves as an ideal home for bacteria. The ear becomes even more vulnerable to infection if there are cuts or open sores present inside the canal. Symptoms at onset may be mild but they can become very painful if untreated.
At the onset of swimmer's ear, the affected individual will experience itching in the ear canal and mild discomfort. At this point, it may not seem like an infection at all; in fact, because it is related to swimming and being wet, the individual may consider it only a symptom of "water in the ear," something that will go away with time. There will be slight redness at the rim of the ear canal and there may be drainage of clear, odorless fluid. A doctor should be consulted immediately at the onset of these symptoms, according to the Mayo Clinic. Moisture in the ear will exacerbate the problem; the ear must be kept dry in order for the infection to heal.
Symptoms of Progression
As the infection worsens, a "bump" will appear at the entrance to the ear canal, according to the Mayo Clinic. This bump will be painful to touch. The skin will be red and there will be excessive drainage of pus. The individual will experience muffled hearing and a feeling like his ear is full of fluid. At this point, the ear is very painful and is made worse if the ear is touched or the outer portion of the ear is moved even a little bit. While itching and pain will persist, scratching or inserting a swab of any kind should be avoided.
Severe Progression of Symptoms
Stoppler states that if unchecked, swimmer's ear will advance to a stage in which the ear is very red and very tender to touch. Swelling will be apparent in the ear and in the lymph nodes, making it painful to move the neck or the jaw. The ear may even swell shut. The outside of the ear will become scaly and red and the patient will sometimes have difficulty hearing. At this point, a fever may occur as well. If the individual has not yet consulted a physician, he should do so right away. A physician will most likely prescribe antibiotics as treatment.