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External Otitis (Swimmer's Ear)

Q: Last week was my family's annual trip to the beach, and for the first few days after we got back, my right ear felt really clogged and sounds were sort of muffled. I figured I just had water in my ear and it would drain on its own. But then the inside started itching, and now it really hurts, plus my hearing seems to be getting worse. What's going on?

Dr. Donnica:
It sounds like you've brought back a classic case of "swimmer's ear" (otitis externa). This is a very common infection of the outer ear canal. The cause of this infection is water trapped in the ear canal, so it can also be caused by routine bathing. If water is trapped in the ear canal, bacteria that normally inhabit the skin and ear canal can multiply, causing infection and irritation of the ear canal. You have the most common symptoms: mild to moderate pain that is worsened by tugging on the earlobe, itchiness, the sensation that the ear is blocked or full, and decreased hearing. You may also develop drainage, fever, intense pain, and swollen lymph nodes.

You need to see your doctor to confirm the diagnosis. She may recommend a careful cleaning of the ear canal and eardrops to inhibit bacterial growth. More severe infections may require antibiotics and pain medication. You will need to keep the ear completely dry until the condition resolves.

Created: 5/18/2005  -  Donnica Moore, M.D.

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