Nothing says summer quite like a refreshing dip in the lake or swimming laps on a sunny morning. Or maybe you dream of pool volleyball during your annual tropical getaway. Whatever floats your boat, it’s understandable why hot summers and water activities naturally go hand-in-hand. Unfortunately, water activities can often lead to swimmer’s ear.

What is Swimmer’s Ear?

Swimmer’s ear (otitis externa) is an infection found in the outer ear canal: the area that extends from the outer ear to the eardrum. This infection occurs when moisture or debris gets trapped in the outer ear, creating the perfect breeding ground for bacterial growth. This bacteria then invades the skin of the ear canal and causes mild to severe infection.

What causes swimmer’s ear?

Unsurprisingly, swimmer’s ear is most often caused by moisture or debris trapped in the ear canal after swimming. But showering, bathing and other moist environments can also encourage infection. Other factors that contribute to developing swimmer’s ear include:

  • 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

Mild cases of swimmer’s ear usually begin with itching and irritation in the ear canal. It can also be accompanied by pain that worsens when you tug on the outer ear. Your ear may feel swollen or blocked. And you may experience odorless discharge. Not fun. More advanced cases of swimmer’s ear will also cause:

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

Thankfully, swimmer’s ear is not typically considered a dangerous condition. Prompt and proper treatment can clear up symptoms quickly and effectively. But if left untreated, swimmer’s ear can become extremely painful and potentially dangerous, especially for older people, those with diabetes and individuals with compromised immune systems. Other complications from untreated swimmer’s ear include:

  • Hearing loss 
  • Recurring ear infections (i.e. chronic otitis externa); without treatment, the infection often persists 
  • Bone and cartilage damage: untreated infections can spread to the base of the skull, brain, or cranial nerves. Older people and individuals with diabetes are at higher risk for this specific complication

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

Treatment

The best course of action for treating swimmer’s ear is with professional medical intervention by a licensed physician. During your appointment, they will examine your ear to determine the extent of the infection. They will also confirm whether you have perforated your eardrum which can exacerbate the infection and lead to complications.

Your physician will then clean your ear, focusing on the infected areas, to help relieve pain and irritation. Afterwards, they will prescribe antibiotic ear drops to treat the infection directly. If the infection is more advanced, they may also prescribe oral antibiotics and/or pain medication. During treatment and healing, you will need to keep your ear dry.

How to Prevent Swimmer’s Ear

If the water is calling your name, there’s no reason you shouldn’t indulge for fear of swimmer’s ear. Instead, follow these 6 tips so you can go with the flow this summer.

  1. Dry your ears after water exposure: Tip your head to one side to let the water drain out, then repeat on the other side. Follow with a dry towel or tissue. NEVER use a cotton swab to dry your ears; this can lead to ear canal damage.
  2. Keep water out of your 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 custom-molded to your ears.
  3. Maintain proper earwax hygiene: Did you know earwax plays an important role in protecting the outer ear canal? That’s why we at Modern Hearing Aids say leave your earwax alone! 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 these at-home tips from the Mayo Clinic. Again, NEVER use a cotton swab to dry your ears; this can lead to ear canal damage.
  4. Keep up skin health: The skin in your ear canal plays a key role in preventing infection. If it appears dry or cracked, see your physician.
  5. Protect your ears from chemical exposure: Keep the chemicals found in hair products like sprays and dyes out of your ear canal with cotton calls or earplugs.
  6. Use ear drops: If a physician has confirmed you do NOT have a perforated eardrum, consider using over-the-counter ear drops designed to prevent swimmer’s ear.

Enjoy the Water This Summer without Worry of Swimmer’s Ear

Don’t let swimmer’s ear put a damper on your summer plans. With proper care and attention to preventative measures, you can enjoy the water safely.