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Treating Swimmer's Ear: Why It's Important to See an ENT

June 22, 2017 at midnight

For most people, summertime means sun-kissed skin, breezy outfits, and cool cocktails. Unfortunately, getting swimmer's ear can make all of those things difficult to enjoy. So, begin the summer by learning more about the season's most common ailment and how an ENT can help.

1. What is swimmer's ear?

Swimmer's ear, also known as otitis externa, is an infection of the outer ear caused by water trapped in the ear canal. The moist environment aids in the growth of bacteria. This leads to inflammation that's painful and affects hearing. It's common in the summer when spending time in the pool is inevitable. Although, putting objects like fingers or cotton swabs in the ears can also damage the ear canal and lead to swimmer's ear. If left untreated, the condition could become serious.

2. How can it be prevented?

Because it's the dampness in the ear that creates a breeding ground for bacteria, then the best way to steer clear of infection is to avoid moisture in the ear canal.

So after bathing, dry the outer ear with a towel, but don't push the cloth deep into the ear canal. Sticking cotton swabs and tissues in the ear could also worsen the damage. To make sure that the ear canal is completely dry after washing, using a hair dryer on a cool setting or drying drops will take care of any moisture left.

Until the swimmer's ear condition has passed, avoid hot tubs and swimming pools as these harbor bacteria that can aggravate the issue. If it's impossible to avoid swimming, then wear ear plugs or a bathing cap to keep water out of the ears.

3. Why should an exam be scheduled with an ENT?

The common symptoms of swimmer's ear are itchiness inside the ear, lymph nodes, decreased hearing, drainage, fever, and pain not just on the ears but also on surrounding areas like the neck or face. When any of these signs are present, it would be good to see an ENT as soon as possible. The doctor will evaluate the patient for swimmer's ear by looking for an infection in the ear canal and testing discharge in the ear for the presence of bacteria.

If left unchecked, swimmer's ear could lead to hearing loss, the recurrence of ear infections, and bone and cartilage damage. This infection can also spread beyond the ear and affect the skull, cranial nerves, and brain. That's why scheduling an exam with an ENT is necessary in order to begin treatment and avoid further complications.

4. How does an ENT effectively treat swimmer's ear?

Before any form of treatment can be administered, the ear canal should be cleared. It's not advisable to clear clogged ears using DIY methods like a water jet or vacuuming kit. These methods are ineffective and might worsen the infection or damage in the ear. When done by a non-professional, they can also cause discomfort. Only ENT specialists will be able to safely remove blockages using medical-grade tools and equipment at their disposal.

The most effective method of clearing the ear canal is by using a curette, which is a tiny spoon used to scoop out earwax. An endoscope or microscope is used to clearly see inside the ear and avoid accidentally scratching tissue.

After removing blockages, the patient will be given ear drops to use. They're either antibiotics for infections or steroids for swelling. Oral antibiotics and painkillers might also be prescribed depending on the severity of the case. These medications require a prescription from a doctor who can advise the right combination of treatments.


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