How to Treat and Prevent Swimmer’s Ear

UPDATED June 1, 2023

Learn how to effectively treat and prevent swimmer’s ear with our comprehensive guide.

written by

Mark Ross

Swimming is a great form of exercise, but it can also come with some unpleasant side effects, like swimmer’s ear. Swimmer’s ear is a painful infection of the outer ear canal that can cause itching, redness, swelling, and even discharge. Fortunately, there are several steps you can take to treat and prevent this common ailment. In this article, we’ll explore everything you need to know about swimmer’s ear, from its causes and symptoms to effective treatment and prevention strategies.

Understanding Swimmer’s Ear

What is Swimmer’s Ear?

Swimmer’s ear, also known as otitis externa, is an infection of the outer ear canal caused by bacteria or fungi. It often occurs when water gets trapped in the ear canal, creating a moist environment that facilitates the growth of harmful microorganisms. While anyone can get swimmer’s ear, it’s particularly common among swimmers, hence its name.

Swimming is a great way to stay active and healthy, but it’s important to take precautions to avoid swimmer’s ear. This is especially true if you swim in pools or natural bodies of water that may be contaminated with bacteria or other microorganisms.

To reduce your risk of swimmer’s ear, consider wearing earplugs while swimming, and avoid putting your head underwater if you have any cuts or abrasions on your skin. You should also be sure to dry your ears thoroughly after swimming, using a clean towel or a hair dryer set on low heat.

Causes of Swimmer’s Ear

Swimmer’s ear can be caused by a variety of factors, including exposure to contaminated water, excessive moisture in the ear, and damage to the skin of the ear canal. Some individuals may be more prone to swimmer’s ear due to underlying medical conditions, like eczema or psoriasis, that make their skin more vulnerable to infection.

It’s important to note that swimmer’s ear is not contagious, so you can’t catch it from someone else. However, it’s still important to take steps to prevent the infection, especially if you’re at higher risk due to certain medical conditions or frequent exposure to contaminated water.

If you do develop swimmer’s ear, it’s important to seek treatment promptly to prevent complications. Your doctor may prescribe antibiotics or antifungal medications to clear up the infection, and may also recommend over-the-counter pain relievers to manage any discomfort.

Symptoms of Swimmer’s Ear

The symptoms of swimmer’s ear can range from mild to severe and may include itching, pain, redness, swelling, discharge, and hearing loss. In severe cases, the infection can spread to the surrounding tissues and even into the bones of the skull, potentially causing serious complications.

If you experience any of these symptoms, it’s important to see a doctor right away. Your doctor can perform a physical exam and may also take a sample of the discharge from your ear to determine the cause of the infection. Based on the results, your doctor can recommend the most appropriate treatment to help you feel better as quickly as possible.

Treating Swimmer’s Ear

Swimmer’s ear, also known as otitis externa, is a painful condition caused by inflammation or infection of the ear canal. It is typically caused by water becoming trapped in the ear canal, creating a moist environment that allows bacteria or fungi to grow. If you suspect you have swimmer’s ear, there are several home remedies and over-the-counter treatments that can help alleviate your symptoms and speed up the healing process.

Home Remedies for Swimmer’s Ear

One of the most effective home remedies for swimmer’s ear is to use ear drops or a mixture of vinegar and rubbing alcohol to help dry out the ear canal. This can help kill any bacteria or fungi that may be causing the infection, as well as reduce inflammation and swelling. Applying a warm compress to the affected ear can also help reduce pain and swelling by increasing blood flow to the area. Additionally, taking over-the-counter pain relievers like acetaminophen or ibuprofen can help manage discomfort.

It is important to note that while home remedies can be helpful in treating swimmer’s ear, they may not be sufficient for more severe cases. If your symptoms persist or worsen, you may need to visit a doctor for stronger medications.

Over-the-Counter Treatments

Over-the-counter treatment options for swimmer’s ear include ear drops containing antibiotics or antifungal agents, as well as pain relievers like benzocaine. These medications can help kill the bacteria or fungi causing the infection, as well as reduce inflammation and pain. Your doctor may also prescribe oral antibiotics or steroids if the infection is severe.

When to See a Doctor

If your symptoms don’t improve within a few days or if you experience severe pain, fever, or discharge from the ear, it’s important to seek medical attention. Your doctor can diagnose the infection and recommend appropriate treatment based on the severity and underlying cause of your swimmer’s ear. In some cases, surgery may be necessary to drain pus or remove infected tissue from the ear canal.

It is also important to take steps to prevent swimmer’s ear from occurring in the first place. This includes wearing earplugs or a swim cap while swimming, drying your ears thoroughly after swimming or showering, and avoiding putting foreign objects like cotton swabs or fingers in your ears.

By following these tips and seeking medical attention when necessary, you can effectively treat swimmer’s ear and prevent it from recurring in the future.

Preventing Swimmer’s Ear

Swimming is a great way to stay active and cool off during the hot summer months. However, it’s important to take steps to prevent swimmer’s ear, a common infection that can occur when water becomes trapped in the ear canal. Here are some tips to help you prevent swimmer’s ear and enjoy your time in the water.

Proper Ear Care and Hygiene

One of the best ways to prevent swimmer’s ear is to maintain proper ear hygiene. This means cleaning your ears regularly and taking steps to keep them dry. After swimming or showering, use a clean towel to gently dry the outside of your ears. Then, tilt your head to the side and gently tug on your earlobe to help water drain out of your ear canal. You can also use a hair dryer on a low setting to help evaporate any remaining moisture.

It’s important to avoid inserting objects like cotton swabs or bobby pins into your ears, as this can damage the delicate skin of the ear canal and increase your risk of infection. Instead, use a clean cloth or towel to clean the outside of your ears.

Using Earplugs While Swimming

Another effective prevention method is to use earplugs while swimming. Earplugs can help keep water out of your ears, reducing your risk of infection. Make sure to choose earplugs that are specifically designed for swimming and fit comfortably in your ears. If you’re not sure which earplugs to choose, ask your doctor or pharmacist for recommendations.

It’s important to remember that earplugs are not a substitute for proper ear hygiene. Even if you use earplugs while swimming, it’s still important to dry your ears thoroughly after swimming or showering.

Drying Your Ears After Swimming

After you’re finished swimming, it’s important to dry your ears as thoroughly as possible. Tilt your head to the side and gently tug on your earlobe to help water drain out. You can also use a towel or cloth to help absorb excess moisture. If you have long hair, make sure to wring it out thoroughly before drying your ears.

If you’re prone to swimmer’s ear or have a history of ear infections, consider using ear drops after swimming to help prevent infection. Your doctor or pharmacist can recommend an appropriate product.

By following these tips, you can reduce your risk of swimmer’s ear and enjoy your time in the water without worry.

Tips for Swimmers

Swimming is a great way to stay active and healthy, but it’s important to take proper precautions to protect yourself from infections and other health issues. Here are some additional tips to help you make the most of your swim:

Choosing the Right Swimming Gear

When it comes to swimming gear, there are a lot of options to choose from. In addition to swim caps and goggles, you may also want to consider investing in a high-quality swimsuit that fits well and provides adequate coverage. This can help protect your skin from the harmful effects of chlorine and other chemicals commonly found in swimming pools.

Another important factor to consider is the type of ear drops and sprays you use to prevent swimmer’s ear. Look for products that are specifically designed for swimmers and contain ingredients like alcohol or vinegar that can help dry out excess moisture in the ear canal.

Swimming in Clean Water

While swimming in a pool is generally considered safe, there are some risks associated with swimming in natural bodies of water like lakes and rivers. In addition to harmful bacteria, these bodies of water may also contain other hazards like rocks, currents, and underwater debris.

If you do choose to swim in natural bodies of water, make sure to check the water quality before diving in. You can usually find this information online or by contacting your local health department. Additionally, always swim in designated swimming areas and avoid areas that are known to be contaminated with harmful bacteria or other pollutants.

Maintaining a Healthy Immune System

As mentioned earlier, maintaining a healthy immune system is key to preventing infections like swimmer’s ear. In addition to eating a nutritious diet and getting enough sleep, there are a few other things you can do to support your immune system.

For example, regular exercise can help boost your immune system by improving circulation and reducing inflammation. Additionally, getting enough vitamin D from sunlight or supplements can also help support your immune system and reduce your risk of infections.

Finally, it’s important to practice good hygiene habits like washing your hands regularly and avoiding contact with people who are sick. This can help prevent the spread of germs and reduce your risk of getting sick.

By following these tips and taking appropriate precautions, you can enjoy all the benefits of swimming while minimizing your risk of infections and other health issues. If you do experience any symptoms, be sure to seek medical attention right away to get the care you need.

Experts behind this article

written by

Mark Ross

Dr. Mark Ross is a Principal Investigator of the RERC on Hearing Enhancement, Professor Emeritus of Audiology, University of Connecticut and has served as Vice President of the SHHH Board of Trustees.

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