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Chronic swimmer’s ear is when the outer ear and ear canal become infected, swollen, or irritated, on a long-term or recurring basis. Water trapped in your ear after swimming often causes this condition. The ear’s structure and the water left in the ear after swimming combine to create a damp, dark space where bacteria and fungi can thrive and cause infection.
Swimmer’s ear occurs fairly often in children and teenagers, especially those who swim regularly. Cases are typically acute (not chronic) and respond to treatment in one to two weeks. Chronic swimmer’s ear occurs when the condition isn’t resolved easily or when it recurs multiple times.
The medical term for chronic swimmer’s ear is chronic otitis externa.
Your earwax, or cerumen, provides a natural barrier against germs entering your ear. Swimmer’s ear can occur when you don’t have enough earwax in your ear. Without the protection of adequate earwax, bacteria can enter your ear and cause an infection.
The following are common causes of chronic swimmer’s ear:
Chronic swimmer’s ear is most common in children. Children typically have narrow ear canals, which trap water more easily.
Other circumstances and behaviors that can increase your risk of developing chronic swimmer’s ear include:
An acute case of swimmer’s ear may become chronic if:
Chronic swimmer’s ear begins with the symptoms of an acute case of swimmer’s ear. Symptoms include:
The condition is considered chronic if:
Complications of untreated chronic swimmer’s ear include:
Serious complications that affect other parts of the body include:
A doctor can usually diagnose chronic swimmer’s ear during an office visit. They will use an otoscope, a lighted instrument that allows them to examine inside the ears. Your doctor will look for the following symptoms of chronic swimmer’s ear:
To determine why the condition is chronic, you may need to see an otolaryngologist (an ear, nose, and throat specialist). An otolaryngologist can identify whether the primary site of the infection is in the middle ear or the outer ear. An infection in the middle ear requires a different type of treatment.
Your doctor may also take a sample of ear discharge or debris for laboratory analysis. This allows them to determine the organism causing the recurring infection.
Before you begin treatment, your doctor may need to clear any discharge or debris in the ear. This procedure uses suction or an ear curette, which has a scoop on the end.
For most cases of chronic swimmer’s ear, treatment will begin with antibiotic eardrops to cure a bacterial infection. If your ear is very swollen, your doctor may have to insert a cotton or gauze wick (tube) into your ear to allow the eardrops to travel into the ear canal.
Treatments with antibiotic eardrops typically last for 10 to 14 days. It’s important to finish the course of eardrops, even if the pain and symptoms subside before the end of the course.
Other treatments for chronic swimmer’s ear include:
Your treatment may be modified to include oral antibiotics, especially if eardrops haven’t helped. Your doctor may also prescribe pain relievers to relieve pain that has increased in severity or has lasted a long time.
High doses of IV antibiotics treat cases of chronic swimmer’s ear with malignant otitis externa, especially in older adults or people with diabetes.
During your treatment, you will get the best results if you do not:
You can reduce your risk of developing chronic swimmer’s ear by following these practices:
Treatment for chronic swimmer’s ear is usually successful. However, depending on the severity of your infection, your treatment may take some time. You may also need to repeat treatment.
It’s important to follow your doctor’s instructions and take all medication, especially oral antibiotics or antibiotic eardrops, for the prescribed period. Your infection isn’t cured simply because your symptoms disappear.
Written by: Anna Giorgion: Nov 20, 2017
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