As it’s name suggests, swimmer’s ear often develops after swimming in contaminated water, but may also occur any time that water becomes trapped in the ear canal, creating an environment that’s hospitable for bacteria to multiply in.
This is more likely to occur if:
- The ear canal is obstructed for some reason (e.g. an excess of earwax)
- Too little earwax is present, which may be a consequence of spending a large amount of time in water
- The tissues of the ear are damaged (e.g. from wearing a hearing aid or ear plugs, or from using cotton buds to clear the ear of wax)
- The acidity of the ear canal is altered
The functions of earwax include inhibiting the proliferation of infectious organisms and maintaining the health of the surfaces of the inner ear, so its presence in appropriate quantities is a vital part of the body’s defences against ear infection.
People who have allergies (for example, asthma, dermatitis or hay fever) are more likely to develop swimmer’s ear than other people, as are those with diabetes and some other chronic illnesses.
The bacteria most commonly responsible for the infection are Staphylococcus aureus and Pseudomonas aeruginosa, but fungal organisms of the Aspergillus and Candida species may also be involved.