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Otitis Externa (Swimmer's Ear)

Otitis externa is a skin infection limited to the external ear canal, and can be caused by swimming or other ear water exposure, scratching the ear with a cotton-tipped applicator or other device (such as a hair pin), or something foreign entering the ear canal – dirt, sand, even small bugs. It manifests with pain, ear drainage, and sometimes hearing loss.

How is Otitis Externa Treated?

Treatment for the early stages of swimmer’s ear includes careful cleaning of the ear canal by a physician and use of eardrops that inhibit bacterial or fungal growth and reduce inflammation. Mildly acidic solutions containing boric or acetic acid are effective for early infections.

Before using any drops in the ear, it is important to be sure you do not have a perforated eardrum. Check with your otolaryngologist if you have ever had a perforated, punctured, or injured eardrum, or if you have had ear surgery.

For more severe infections, your doctor may prescribe antibiotics to be applied directly to the ear. If the ear canal is swollen shut, a sponge or wick may be placed in the canal so the antibiotic drops will enter the swollen canal more effectively. If you have tubes in your eardrum, a non oto-toxic (does not affect your hearing) topical treatment should be used. Topical antibiotics are effective for infection limited to the ear canal. Oral antibiotics may also be prescribed if the infection goes beyond the ear canal.

Follow-up appointments are very important to monitor improvement or worsening, to clean the ear again, and to replace the ear wick as needed. Your otolaryngologist has specialized equipment and expertise to effectively clean the ear canal and treat swimmer’s ear. With proper treatment, most infections should clear up in 7-10 days.

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