Swimmer's ear and an ear infection are quite similar. Swimmer's ear is a bacterial infection of the thin layer of skin lining the ear canal. Without treatment, the infection can spread to nearby tissue. An ear infection, on the other hand, is an infection of the middle ear. Fluid builds up behind the eardrum as a result of the middle ear lining becoming swollen from a viral infection or cold. While a doctor can sometimes see the fluid, he or she cannot easily say if the fluid is infected without gathering a sample. Both are uncomfortable and have similar symptoms. The major difference is the physical location within the ear.
The initial signs of swimmer's ear are an itching in ear canal, a slight redness of skin in ear canal, mild discomfort and some drainage of odorless fluid. As it progresses the symptoms may include a redness of skin, excessive fluid drainage, discharge of pus, pain that worsens on moving your outer ear or pushing on the little "bump" in front of your ear, a feeling of fullness in your ear, or decreased or muffled hearing. Severe symptoms are considered to be severe pain, swelling in your ear or lymph nodes in your neck, redness or swelling of the outer ear, and scaly or flaking skin of the outer ear.
The symptoms of swimmer's ear and an ear infection are similar. For an ear infection, look for pain in the ears, trouble sleeping, a failure to respond to sounds, irritability, a fever of 100 F (38 C) or higher, a clear fluid that drains from the ears, headaches and dizziness.
The Mayo Clinic suggests calling your doctor at the first signs of having swimmer's ear, especially if you are experiencing severe pain or running a fever. For an ear infection, watch for any discharge. If you see a discharge of blood or pus from the ear, call your doctor as you could have a ruptured eardrum.
Depending on the severity of your swimmer's ear, your doctor may prescribe ear drops to loosen the wax and an antibody to fight off the infection. In some cases, a wick is placed in the ear. The wick is a tiny sponge that keeps the ear drops in contact with the infected ear canal.
Antibiotics are generally prescribed for ear infections. If you suffer chronic ear infections, your doctor might also request an audiogram and a tympanogram. The former tests your hearing and the latter checks whether your eardrum moves in a normal manner.
In either case, if the pain persists, contact your doctor. Be sure to take precautions against another episode.
Causes & Prevention
Swimmer's ear is caused by excessive moisture in the ear. This can be from a lot of swimming or even humid weather. The water or moisture erodes the cerumen and made it less acidic and thus less effective at fighting off bacteria in the ear. According to the Mayo Clinic, it can also be caused by an abrasion in the skin from scratching with a cotton swab or hairpin or a rash caused by sensitivity to hair products or jewelry.
Ear infections are common in children, especially after colds or respiratory infections. According to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, three out of four children have had an ear infection by age of three. They can be caused by a blockage or swelling in the narrow passageways connecting the middle ear to the nose. Take precautions to avoid colds and secondhand smoke.
Do not attempt to remove all your ear wax, as it protects the ear. After you swim, use an over-the-counter ear-drying agent in your ears. It should contain isopropyl alcohol or acetic acid and aluminum acetate.