Everything You Need To Know About Swimmer’s Ear

Smiling boy swimming in pool

Summer is for lazy afternoons at the pool and other fun water-related activities to beat the heat. One of the common summer ailments that result from these activities is “Swimmer’s Ear” (oditis externa), an infection of the outer ear canal.

According to the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), swimmer’s ear is the cause of more than 2.4 million healthcare visits in the USA each year. Here are some practical tips from Palm Beach Sinus Doctors to prevent and treat swimmer’s ear so it doesn’t put a damper on your summer fun.

What causes swimmer’s ear?

Your ear has natural defenses that keep your ears clean and prevent infection. Glands produce cerumen, a waxy substance that creates a water-repellent film over the delicate skin of your ear canal. Cerumen is also slightly acidic so bacteria and fungus have a difficult time growing. The downward slope of your ear canal is another natural defense. It helps water drain out your ear rather than pool inside or drain toward your inner ear.

Many people are surprised to learn that you don’t have to go swimming to get swimmer’s ear! Swimmer’s ear develops when your natural defenses are overwhelmed or compromised. It often occurs when moisture stays in your ear, creating a moist environment that allows the bacteria to grow. This can happen after swimming, from sweat, or even being in a warm, humid environment for long periods of time.

Scratches and abrasions in your ear canal compromise your natural defenses and make it easier for bacteria to grow. Sticking sharp objects in your ear, scratching your ear with a fingernail, even cleaning out your ear with a cotton swab can damage the sensitive skin. Wearing headphones and hearing aids for extended periods of time can cause small breaks in the skin and make you more susceptible to swimmer’s ear.

While 98% of documented cases of swimmer’s ear in North America are caused by bacterial infections, swimmer’s ear can also be caused by fungal infections. An ENT (ear nose and throat specialist) can take samples to diagnose whether the infection is fungal or bacterial to prescribe the most effective treatment.

What are the symptoms of swimmer’s ear?

Swimmer’s ear is not the same as a middle ear infection, a common childhood ailment. If you can wiggle or put pressure on the outer ear without pain or discomfort then it is probably not a case of swimmer’s ear.

While anyone can get swimmer’s ear, it is most common in children and can be extremely painful. Swimmer’s ear can last up to three weeks and affect the entire ear canal. The most common symptoms of a mild case of swimmer’s ear include:

  • Redness and swelling of the outer ear and ear canal
  • Pain when the ear is touched or when pressure is put on the ear
  • Itchiness inside the ear canal
  • Clear and odorless fluid may drain from the ear

A moderate case of swimmer’s ear may have more serious symptoms, including:

  • Excessive fluid draining from the ear or a discharge of puss
  • A feeling of fullness in your ear
  • Partial blockage of the ear canal with swelling, fluid, or even debris
  • Decreased or muffled hearing

An advanced case of swimmer’s ear may lead to severe pain that radiates to the face, neck, and side of the head, complete blockage of the ear canal, a fever, and swelling in the lymph nodes.

What are the treatments for swimmer’s ear?

You should contact the doctor as soon as you notice mild symptoms of swimmer’s ear. While swimmer’s ear is relatively simple to treat, it can become serious very quickly if left untreated. Visit the emergency room if your child is in extreme pain or has a fever.

The doctor may gently clean anything that is blocking your ear canal, including fluid and excess wax. Then they will make sure the eardrum is healthy. A perforated (torn) eardrum may change the treatment plan.

The doctor will likely prescribe eardrops to use at home. The eardrops will fight infection and help your ear heal properly. Antibiotic drops are prescribed to kill bacterial infections. Antifungal medicines are prescribed if the case is caused by a fungal infection.

It is important to use the drops for as long as the doctor prescribes (usually 7 to 14 days), even if the symptoms disappear. The infection could return if the bacteria or fungus is not completely eradicated.

The doctor may prescribe steroids to reduce swelling and discomfort. In serious or chronic cases of swimmer’s ear, the doctor may prescribe a blend of chemicals to help your body restore the healthy balance in your ear canal and boost the natural defenses.

It is important to keep your ears dry while treating swimmer’s ear. Some people put cotton swabs with petroleum jelly in their ears while they shower to keep water out. Avoid swimming and other activities where your ears may get wet for 7 to 10 days or until the doctor gives you the “go-ahead”. The doctor may also recommend skipping headphones and hearing aids until your symptoms subside. This will allow the sensitive skin in your ears to heal.

How to prevent swimmer’s ear

It’s easy to prevent swimmer’s ear and keep the summer fun going strong.

  • Keep your ears dry: Dry your ears thoroughly after showering or swimming. Use a soft towel or cloth to gently wipe the outside of your ear and tip your head to the side to help water drain from your ear canal. Use a blow dryer on the lowest setting to gently dry your ear without putting anything in your ear canal.
  • Use swimmer’s eardrops: Use preventative drops before and after swimming, especially in water that has not been treated, like a river, lake, or the ocean. A mixture of 1 part white vinegar to 1 part rubbing alcohol will help keep your ears dry and prevent bacteria or fungi from growing. Similar drops are available over the counter at most drugstores. Talk with your doctor before starting to regularly use eardrops.
  • Check the water: Don’t swim in areas where there are high bacterial counts.
  • Don’t put foreign objects in your ears: The skin in your ear is very sensitive and easy to damage. Don’t try to scratch or clean the inside of your ear. Not only can this scratch the skin, it may pack the wax and dirt deeper into your ear canal.
  • Wear earplugs and swim cap: swimming earplugs and caps help keep water out of your ears while swimming. This is especially recommended when you are swimming in untreated water–lakes, rivers, and the ocean.

Summer is a time to make memories, have fun, and relax. Take these easy steps to keep the summer fun going and avoid including “got swimmer’s ear” in the next “What I did this summer” report.