Water in the ear will often dissipate on its own with little intervention being required. However, if it persists and is left untreated, it can cause some unpleasant conditions. The structure of the ear provides a dark and damp environment where fungi or bacteria can thrive and this can lead to infection. This infection, also known as otitis externa, can cause swelling, irritation and discomfort.
There are a number of reasons, in addition to the presence of water, why we get swimmer’s ear. Ear wax provides a natural defense against bacteria, so over-cleaning with swabs can remove too much wax and lessen those defenses. Having a foreign object stuck in your ear can also lead to infection, as can a break in the skin, such as a scratch. An allergic reaction to chemicals in cosmetic products like hairspray may also cause a reaction leading to an infection.
If your ear has become infected, you may notice an itching sensation or pain that increases when you pull on your earlobe or chew. You may also feel that your ear is blocked and experience reduced hearing. In some cases you may see pus or fluid draining from the ear or develop a fever or swollen lymph nodes.
Most cases of swimmer’s ear respond well to treatment and the infection usually subsides within a week or two. This is known as acute otitis externa. In a small number of cases, however, the infection can develop into chronic otitis externa if left untreated. There a number of reasons that treatment might be ineffective: (1) the physical nature of your ear makes it difficult to treat; (2) the specific fungus or bacteria happens to be rare;(3) the infection is both fungal and bacterial; (4) or you have an allergic reaction to the prescribed ear drops.
Other risk factors include swimming frequently, particularly in polluted water or being in other environments, such as hot tubs, where bacteria may be present. Using headphones or swim caps may also scratch the ear or harbor harmful bacteria. Certain skin conditions, like eczema or psoriasis, may also increase the likelihood of infection.
In serious cases, there may be complications such as hearing loss, or an infection spreading to the surrounding skin or cellulitis, which is an infection in the deep layers of the skin. Complications may also affect other parts of the body. These can include malignant otitis externa, where the infection spreads to the base of the skull, or even a more widespread malignant otitis externa that affects the brain and other parts of the body.
It should be remembered, however, that the vast majority of cases are treated simply and effectively. Typically your doctor will diagnose the condition by examining the ear with an otoscope. The treatment often consists of antibiotic ear drops and may also include antifungal eardrops should the infection be of a fungal nature. Vinegar eardrops may be prescribed to help restore the proper bacterial balance in the ear, and corticosteroids may be used to reduce swelling. Your doctor may also give you something to reduce any pain and discomfort. Oral antibiotics may also be used in persistent cases. During the treatment you will usually be advised not to swim, fly, or get water in your ear.