Is it Swimmer’s Ear or an Ear Infection?

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Cindi Griffin is a family nurse practitioner who sees patients at our Highland and Montfort clinics. She has been part of Upland Hills Health since 2016.

 

Summer is finally upon us! Warm sunny days bring more trips to the pools and lakes. If you’re a swimmer, or if your kids spend a lot of time in the water, it is essential that you be aware of symptoms of swimmer’s ear.

toddler swimming

Swimmer’s ear (otitis externa) is an infection in the ear canal. This canal starts at the eardrum and travels to the outside of your ear. This infection is often caused by water that stays in the ear canal after swimming or playing in the water, creating a moist dark place for bacteria to grow. Other causes of otitis externa include placing fingers, cotton swabs, or other objects into the ear canal, which can cause damage to the thin layer of skin that lines the ear canal.

Mild symptoms are the first indication of swimmer’s ear:

  • Itching in the ear
  • Redness to the inside of the ear
  • Clear or thick white drainage
  • Pain when pulling on the ear.

If this is left untreated, the symptoms can get worse, causing pain, increased drainage and redness, feeling like your hearing is muffled, and redness to the outer ear. It can also lead to facial pain, swollen lymph nodes, and complete blocking of the ear canal.

First line treatment for swimmer’s ear is usually antibiotic ear drops, these are effective and work quickly. If the infection is severe it may require oral antibiotics. Getting prompt treatment can prevent complications or worsening infection.

Otitis media is what we commonly think of as an “ear infection.” It is an infection of the middle ear, not the canal as with swimmer’s ear. This can happen when germs in the nose, throat, and sinuses travel into the Eustachian tube (a tube that links the middle ear to the sinus/throat for drainage) and start to grow, or when the tube becomes clogged and damp, making it the perfect home for germs. This condition can be caused by either bacteria or a virus. It can be accompanied by pain, fever, nausea/vomiting and fussiness in small children. First line treatment for a middle ear infection is oral antibiotics.

How to tell the difference

Middle ear infections and swimmer’s ear can sometimes have similar symptoms. However, if you have been swimming or playing in the water, your ear itches, and you have drainage, it is most likely swimmer’s ear. Symptoms of swimmer’s ear are usually less severe and itching is common. Swimmer’s ear can be treated with over the counter drops that you can purchase at the pharmacy. However, if you are unsure which it may be, you should see your health care provider for assessment and treatment.