October 19, 2018
Swimmer’s Ear: Causes and Treatments

Swimmer’s Ear: Causes and Treatments

by Berkeley Wellness  

Swimmer’s ear, also called otitis externa, is a painful, itchy infection brought on when water containing infectious agents gets trapped in the ear and causes inflammation of the outer ear and canal. The triangular piece of cartilage in front of the ear opening, known as the tragus, may feel sore or tender. There may also be discharge from the ear canal. Just as you needn’t be an athlete to get athlete’s foot, you needn’t be a swimmer to get swimmer’s ear. Swimmer’s ear is more common in children than adults.

What causes swimmer’s ear?

Bacteria or fungi in water trapped in your ear causes swimmer’s ear. Swimming is the most common cause of this problem, but some people may get water in their ears from showering or washing their hair. The longer the water remains in the ear, the more likely it is that any microorganisms will breed.

Your ear has natural defenses that help to keep them clean and free of infection, but some things can overwhelm these defenses and make you more prone to getting swimmer’s ear. These include heavy perspiration, humid weather, excessive cleaning of the ear with foreign objects, or frequently wearing headphones or hearing aids. You cannot get swimmer’s ear from another person.

What if you do nothing?

A mild case of swimmer’s ear often clears up without treatment. Severe, persistent, or recurring cases require medical attention.

Home remedies for swimmer’s ear

  • Keep the infected ear dry. Don’t go swimming. When you shower, keep your infected ear turned away from the water while washing your hair, and otherwise wear a shower cap. Alternatively, you can coat a cotton ball with petroleum jelly and place it in your ear when you bathe.
  • Clean the ear canal before applying eardrops. Removal of any built up material inside the ear will help eardrops get inside the ear. To do this, first use an eyedropper to apply a few drops of oil (such as baby oil or mineral oil) or hydrogen peroxide inside your ear. Wait a day or two for the wax to soften, then use a rubber-bulb syringe to squirt warm water into the ear. When finished, tilt the head to let the water drain out then dry the outer ear with a towel. There are also earwax removal kits available in stores. If you have ever had ear surgery or a ruptured eardrum, see a doctor to help remove wax from your ear.
  • Use antiseptic eardrops. You can buy these without a prescription at any drugstore. Or make them yourself: mix equal parts of white vinegar and rubbing alcohol (70 percent isopropyl alcohol) from the drugstore. This solution restores the natural acid balance of the ear canal and helps dry it out. The mixture also kills bacteria. If alcohol irritates your skin, use vinegar diluted with water. Put one or two drops of this solution in each ear with a dropper. Leave the drops in your ear for two or three minutes, then tilt your head and let them drain out. Repeat three times a day.
  • Don’t scratch. Resist the temptation to scratch inside the ear with an object. You risk rupturing your eardrum.
  • Take medication for pain. If you have ear pain, take NSAIDs such as ibuprofen.

How to prevent swimmer’s ear

  • Clear your ears. After swimming, shake your head to remove water trapped in your ears.
  • Use earplugs. Use earplugs while swimming to keep water from getting inside the ear.
  • Keep your ears dry. Gently dry the external ear with a corner of a towel. The ear canal is self-cleaning, so you don’t need to insert cotton swabs or anything else into the canal to dry or clean your ears. This could cause injury or infection.
  • If you are prone to ear infection, use antiseptic eardrops. This is particularly helpful if you’ve been swimming in a lake.
  • Consider having your ears checked. People who are prone to itchy ears or ear infections may need to have a doctor check their ears and remove excess wax before swimming season starts. If you have ever had a perforated eardrum or have ever had ear surgery, get medical advice before using eardrops and before swimming.

When to call your doctor about swimmer’s ear

Contact your doctor if swelling, pain, and discharge occur, or if mild inflammation persists for more than a few days.

What your doctor will do

Your doctor will examine your ear, and may take a culture for bacteria. Effective treatments include irrigation of the ear and antibiotic eardrops.

Also see: Ear Infections and Earaches.