DEAR MAYO CLINIC: My daughter is 7 and has been taking swim lessons this summer. She has been complaining about her ears hurting, and our pediatrician diagnosed her with otitis externa and prescribed eardrops. What is otitis externa, and how do I prevent it in the future?
ANSWER: Otitis externa is an infection in the outer ear canal, which runs from the eardrum to the outside of the head. The condition is also known as swimmer's ear because often it is brought on by water that remains in the ear after swimming, creating a moist environment that aids bacterial growth. The most common cause of this infection is bacteria invading the skin inside the ear canal.
Swimmer's ear can affect people of any age, and it can affect those who do not spend time in the water since it occurs because of bacteria invading the skin inside the ear canal. Excess moisture in the ear from heavy perspiration or prolonged humid weather also can be a culprit.
Scratches or abrasions in the ear canal increase the risk of developing otitis externa. Putting fingers, cotton swabs or other objects in the ears, such as earbuds or hearing aids, also can lead to this infection by damaging the thin layer of skin lining the ear canal. Any small breaks in the skin can allow bacteria to grow.
Occasionally people can have a reaction to hair products or jewelry, which can cause an allergic reaction and skin issues that promote infection.
Swimmer's ear symptoms are usually mild at first, but they can worsen if the infection isn't treated or spreads.
Common signs and symptoms to watch out for include:
Swimmer's ear usually isn't serious if treated promptly, but complications can occur. Usually swimmer's ear is treated with eardrops.
Be aware if your daughter complains of a feeling of fullness, increased pain or more intense itching, or experiences hearing complications. The infection may be progressing. However, temporary hearing loss could occur until the infection clears.
Follow these tips to avoid swimmer's ear:
Since your daughter already has been diagnosed, it might be ideal to encourage her to wear earplugs while swimming. Also, talk with her health care provider to see how long she should wait before returning to swimming. Recurrent infections may require additional treatment. — Compiled by Mayo Clinic staff