What you should know about swimmer’s ear

What you should know about swimmer’s ear

Warm temperatures and plenty of free time make swimming and other water recreation very popular for children during the summer.

All that time in the water brings increased risk for the painful outer ear infection known as “swimmer’s ear” which is an infection in the skin of the ear canal.

Swimmer’s ear occurs when water gets trapped in the ear canal after swimming or bathing, causing bacteria that already exists in the ear canal to multiply, says Dr. Charles Amenta, an ear, nose and throat specialist at Advocate South Suburban Hospital in Hazel Crest, Ill.

“This infection can invade the thin skin, block the ear with swelling, and cause severe pain,” says Dr. Amenta.  “Other symptoms may include fever, itching of the ear canal, yellow or yellow-green drainage from the ear, and hearing loss.”

Dr. Amenta points out that swimmer’s ear is different than a typical childhood ear infection known as a middle-ear infection.

“Swimmer’s ear is primarily confined to the ear canal and outer ear and does not affect the space behind the ear drum like a middle ear infection would,” he says. “If someone can touch or pull the outer ear without pain or discomfort, then the ear condition is probably not swimmer’s ear.”

Swimmer’s ear needs to be treated to reduce pain and eliminate any effect it may have on a person’s hearing. Treatment of mild swimmer’s ear includes use of prescribed eardrops within the ear canal to stop bacterial or fungal growth and reduce swelling. Occasionally, the ears, nose and throat specialist will perform careful cleaning of the ear canal, Dr. Amenta says.

To help prevent swimmer’s ear, the Centers for Disease Prevention and Control offers these dos and don’ts:

Do:

  • Keep ears as dry as possible
    • Use a bathing cap, ear plugs or custom-fitted swim molds when swimming to keep water out of your ears.
  • Dry your ears thoroughly after swimming or showering.
    • Use a towel to dry your ears well.
    • Tilt your head to hold each ear facing down to allow water to escape the ear canal.
    • Pull your earlobe in different directions while your ear is faced down to help water drain out.

Don’t:

  • Don’t put objects in your ear canal, including cotton-tip swabs, pencils, paperclips or fingers.
  • Don’t try to remove ear wax. Ear wax helps protect your ear canal from infection. If you think your ear canal is blocked by ear wax, consult your health care provider rather than trying to remove it yourself.

Talk to your doctor:

  • Consult with your health care provider if your ears are itchy, flaky, swollen or painful, or if you have drainage from your ears.
  • Talk to your doctor about using commercial, alcohol-based ear drops or a 1:1 mixture of rubbing alcohol and white vinegar after swimming.

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About the Author

Nate Llewellyn
Nate Llewellyn

Nate Llewellyn, health enews contributor, is a manager of public affairs at Advocate Medical Group. Nate began his career as a journalist and builds daily on his nearly 20 years of writing experience. He spends most of his free time following his wife to their two sons’ various activities.