Most cases of acute otitis externa — swimmer’s ear — can be easily treated with prescription antimicrobial ear drops, but with cases peaking during the summer swimming season, the CDC is dispensing advice aimed at preventing this common and costly condition altogether.

The most recent CDC data reveal that swimmer’s ear is responsible for an estimated 2.4 million doctor visits and approximately $489 million in direct health-care payments each year. Between 2003 and 2007, rates of doctor visits for swimmer’s ear were highest in children aged 5 to 14 years, but more than half the reported infections occurred in adults older than age 20 years.

Bacteria found in pools and other recreational water venues are among the most frequent causes of swimmer’s ear. “By taking simple steps before and after swimming or coming in contact with water, people can greatly reduce their risk of this painful infection,” pointed out Michael Beach, PhD, the CDC’s associate director for healthy water.

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The agency’s updated recommendations urge people to adopt the following preventive measures:

  • Keep the ears as dry as possible around water.
  • Dry ears after swimming or showering.
  • Refrain from putting objects in the ear canal or removing ear wax oneself to avoid damaging the skin and thus raising the risk of infection.
  • Ask a clinician whether the use of alcohol-based ear drops is warranted.
  • Consult a clinician if ears are flaky, itchy, swollen, or painful, or have fluid draining from them.

MMWR. 2011;60:605-609