Most outer ear infections are caused by excess moisture trapped in the ear. Trapped moisture leads to increased bacterial growth and infections. The more bacteria there is in the ear, the more problems the individual will have. Swimmer’s ear is the most common example of an outer ear infection. Keeping the ear dry is essential for preventing outer ear infections.
What is the outer ear?
The outer ear runs from the eardrum to the outside of the head. The outer ear works by funneling sound waves into the ear canal. Upon entering the ear, the sound is amplified and the sound waves travel to the tympanic membrane. Infection in the outer ear is largely caused by excess moisture. Problems with the outer ear are known as otitis externa.
Water is the culprit
Water left inside the ear canal can lead to bacterial growth. The most common causes of excess water in the ear are showering too frequently and swimming. Swimming in chlorinated pools is less likely to cause bacterial growth. Individuals with narrow ear canals are more likely to have water trapped inside the ear. If the delicate lining of the ear canal becomes damaged, the risk of infection increases. Headphones, hearing aids, and cotton swabs are the most common causes of injury to the ear canal lining.
Swimmer’s ear is the most recognizable form of otitis externa. Water becomes trapped, leading to increased bacterial growth. Bacterial growth leads to infection. The infection leads to inflammation, discomfort, abnormal discharge, and decreased hearing. Treatment mostly comes in the form of medicated ear drops. Most outer ear conditions are preventable.
Preventing outer ear infections
The key is to keep ears dry. Promptly cleaning and drying ears after swimming or showering will eliminate the environment for bacteria to grow. Tipping the head to the side allows excess water to drain out of the ear. Rubbing alcohol on a cotton swab can be used to help dry out the ear but should only be used a few times a week. Too much can cause the skin of the outer ear to become chapped.
Wearing earplugs when swimming or bathing will help keep the ear canal dry. The earplugs need to be pliable and waterproof. Many sound muffling earplugs are too porous and will allow water through. A correct fit is essential and a physician can help ensure the right earplugs are selected.
Ear wax is crucial
Ear wax is nature’s filter for the ear and prevents foreign bodies from reaching the eardrum. Ear wax keeps the ear canal sufficiently lubricated without becoming too moist. A natural antimicrobial, ear wax keeps the ear free of infection. Too little can cause the ear to become dry and cracked. Too much can cause earaches and infections.
Clean and dry is the way forward
Keeping the ears clean and dry is the best defense against swimmer’s ear and outer ear infections. People should avoid over-drying the ear. Sticking objects such as cotton swabs into the ear should be avoided. Wax is a good thing and helps keep the ear clean and protected. Excess ear wax should be removed by a medical professional. Waterproof earplugs can help keep the ear canal dry while swimming or bathing. Swimmer’s ear and other outer ear infections are treatable and preventable. Patients who are concerned about ear infections should speak with an ear, nose, and throat (ENT) specialist.