Known to medical professionals as otitis externa, swimmer's ear is an inflammation of the ear canal. Its common name comes from the fact that it often occurs in children and young adults who swim frequently. However, any cause of dampness in the canal can lead to irritation and chafing, very similar to diaper rash in babies. An inflammation of the skin can sometimes lead to an infection that can be very painful.
Despite its name, you don't have to be a swimmer to get swimmer's ear. It's often caused by excess moisture in the ear from routine showering. The moisture can cause the skin inside the ear canal to become chafed, dry, and cracked. A break in the skin, which may result from trying to scratch the persistent itch of the dry and flaky skin, can allow bacteria or (more rarely) a fungus to invade the tissue of the ear canal and cause an infection. Swimming in dirty or polluted water, therefore, is a common cause of swimmer's ear; the bacteria in the water find a hospitable home in the moist environment of an inflamed ear canal.
Other skin conditions, such as seborrheic dermatitis and psoriasis, can also lead to swimmer's ear. Another common cause is excessive and improper cleaning of wax from the ears. Not only does wax protect the ear canal from excess moisture, but it also harbors friendly bacteria. Removing this protective barrier -- particularly with hairpins, fingernails, or other objects that can scratch the skin -- makes it easier for an infection to take hold. Hair spray or hair coloring, which can irritate the ear canal, may also lead to an outer ear infection.
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