Hearing Blog

A deep dive into swimmer’s ear

June 4, 2024

Nothing says summer like a refreshing dip in the lake or swimming the lanes on a sunny morning. Or maybe it’s pool volleyball you dream of while planning your annual tropical getaway. Whatever floats your boat, it’s hard to deny that summer and water activities go hand-in-hand. Unfortunately, water activities can often lead to swimmer’s ear(Ouch!)

What is swimmer’s ear?

Swimmer’s ear (or otitis externa) is an infection found in the outer ear canal, the area that extends from the outer ear to the eardrum. Swimmer’s ear occurs when moisture or debris gets trapped in the outer ear. This creates the perfect breeding ground for bacterial growth, which can invade the skin of the ear canal.

Causes of swimmer’s ear

Unsurprisingly, swimmer’s ear is most often caused by moisture or debris that stays in the ear canal after swimming. But showering, bathing, or other moist environments can also be causes.

Other factors that can contribute to swimmer’s ear:

  • Exposure to excessive bacteria, often found in hot tubs or polluted water
  • Excessive cleaning of the ear canal with cotton swabs (or any other tool that can damage the skin)
  • Cuts or skin conditions in the ear canal (e.g. eczema or seborrhea) that create an opening for bacteria to penetrate the skin
  • Contact with chemicals from hair sprays or dyes that enter the ear canal

Symptoms of swimmer’s ear

Mild cases of swimmer’s ear usually begin with itching and irritation in the ear canal, and pain that worsens when you tug on the outer ear. Your ear may feel swollen or blocked, and a clear, odorless discharge may emerge as well. Not fun.

Advanced cases of swimmer’s ear may involve:

  • Fever
  • Decreased hearing
  • Intense pain that spreads to the neck, face, or head
  • Redness and/or swelling of the skin around the ear
  • Drainage or discharge that has an odor

Thankfully, swimmer’s ear is not typically considered a dangerous condition and can clear up quickly after treatment. But if left untreated, it can become extremely painful and potentially dangerous — especially for seniors and those with diabetes or compromised immune systems.

Complications of untreated swimmer’s ear include:

  • Hearing loss
  • Recurring ear infections (i.e. chronic otitis externa) — without treatment, the infection can persist
  • Bone and cartilage damage — untreated infections can spread to the base of the skull, brain, or cranial nerves (people with diabetes and seniors are at higher risk of this)

So, treat your swimmer’s ear as soon as possible to help prevent damaging effects on your hearing and overall health.

How to treat swimmer’s ear

The best course of action for treating swimmer’s ear is to visit your physician, who should:

  • Examine your ear
    Your physician will perform an otoscopic examination to confirm there is no eardrum perforation. (This is a hole in the tissue that separates your ear canal from the middle ear, which would allow moisture to invade the middle ear space.)
  • Clean your ear
    They may be able to easily clean the infected area of your ear to help relieve the irritation and pain.
  • Prescribe medication
    They will prescribe antibiotic ear drops, which are necessary to clear the infection.

If your swimmer’s ear is more advanced, the physician may prescribe oral antibiotics or pain medication in addition to the ear drops. But if there is no improvement within 3–4 days, they may consider different medications.

Important tip: Always keep your infected ear(s) dry during the healing process.

Six ways to help prevent swimmer’s ear

Follow these preventative measures against swimmer’s ear to help you stay in the swim of things this summer:

  1. Dry your ears after water exposure, especially swimming
    Tip your head to one side to let the water drain out, then repeat on the other side. Next, dry the ear using a dry towel or tissue.

Important tip: Never use a cotton swab to dry your ears. This can lead to ear canal damage.

  1. Keep water out of ears
    Earplugs are an easy fix for providing a barrier between your ears and the water. You can buy them over the counter, or for an even more effective solution, have them molded for your specific ear by a hearing care professional.
  2. Maintain proper earwax hygiene
    Did you know earwax plays an important role in protecting the outer ear canal? For this reason, the Mayo Clinic advises to leave earwax alone, in general. But if you find earwax at the opening of the ear canal, you can gently it wash away with a damp cloth. For excess earwax or earwax that is blocking your ear canal, see your physician or follow Mayo’s at-home cleaning method.

Important tip: Avoid cleaning your ears using a cotton swab or ear candling. These can lead to ear canal damage and infection.

  1. Keep up skin health
    The skin in your ear canal also has a key part in preventing infection from getting in. If you find it is dry or cracked (often due to a health condition), see your physician.
  2. Protect ears from chemicals
    Keep chemicals from hair sprays and dyes out of your ear canal using cotton balls or earplugs as barriers.
  3. Consider ear drops
    If you know don’t have a perforation on your eardrum (it’s strongly advised to verify this with your physician), you can use over-the-counter drops designed to help prevent swimmer’s ear.

Here’s to a safe, fun-filled summer — without letting swimmer’s ear put a damper on things.

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