Part of the magic of constantly being in the sun and surf during the summer can quickly get dampened (no pun intended) by getting swimmer’s ear. Swimmer's ear (or otitis externa) is caused when water gets trapped in the ear canal, resulting in a bacterial or fungal infection. Bacteria is always in our ear, but that good bacterial can begin to multiply in the summer time when warm, wet conditions are so common. For many, this can result in literal and figurative pain when it turns into irritation, infection, and inflammation.
Some of what precludes someone from getting swimmer’s ear is genetic; some ear canal shapes are just more likely than others to trap water. If you’re one of these unfortunate souls, there are a few preliminary precautions you could take to avoid getting swimmer’s ear.
1) Avoid Foreign Objects
Make sure you’re not using cotton swabs, tissues, or your fingers to clean your ears. Your ear has a natural defense against ear infections and those are glands that secret a waxy substance (cerumen) that makes the inside of your ear naturally water repellent. It also works to clean your ear by pushing out dirt and dead skin cells. If you clear out this wax, not only do you break down your natural defenses, you also run the risk of scratching your ear canal with cotton swabs and making an ideal breeding ground for bacteria. I know using Q-Tips post shower can be so satisfying but do your best to avoid them, particularly if you’re already prone to ear infections, as counterintuitive as that may seem.
2) Protect Your Ears in the Water
Although swimmer’s ear isn’t exclusive to actual swimmers, being in the water does increase your chances of developing it. To help prevent accumulating water in your canal, you can wear ear plugs or swim caps in the pool. Just be sure your ears are dry before putting ear plugs in and remember to dry them sufficiently afterwards with a soft cloth or a towel. However, these measures don’t necessarily preclude you from eventually getting an infection.
3) Use a Hair Dryer
Another good trick is to use a hair dryer on a low heat setting to help dry up any excess water after taking a dip. Hold it about a foot from your head, otherwise you run the risk of actually pushing water deeper into your ear canals instead of just aiding in its evaporation.
4) At Home Remedies
There are a few additives you can use to help you keep your ears clean and dry. One is hydrogen peroxide which helps to dissolve buildup of earwax that can trap water in your ear. To do this, fill a dropper half-way full and drop it into your ear while you’re lying down, affected ear up. Let the hydrogen peroxide bubble and fizz, then turn your ear to the size and let it drain. Have a towel handy unless you REALLY don’t care about your couch/carpet. Get someone to help you if you find it a little tricky or if you’re too squeamish to do it on your own.
Another eardrop solution you can make at home is a mixture of one part white vinegar to one part rubbing alcohol. This will promote drying and will prevent bacteria growth—just be sure you don’t have any cuts of a punctured ear drum when applying. Use the same way you would the hydrogen peroxide.
5) Pick Your Swimming Locations Wisely
Be informed about where you go swimming. Lakes can have higher bacterial growth than, say, a well-sanitized swimming pool. In addition, hotel hot tubs are often some of the least sanitary bodies of water out there so if you do go for a soak while on vacation, avoid dunking your head under the water.
If you’re not sure if you’ve developed swimmer’s ear, there are a few signs you should watch for when looking for symptoms:
Mild irritation will start as well as itching in the ear canal, slight redness inside the ear, and mild discomfort that’s made worse by pulling on your ear or pushing on the tragus (the small bump that protects your ear canal). You may experience some drainage of clear, odorless fluid.
Moderate degrees of irritation will lead to more intense itching, increased pain, and more noticeable redness. You’ll probably start to feel like your ear is clogged due to swelling and fluid and you’re likely to have excessive fluid drainage.
If it gets to the advanced stages, you’ll experience severe pain that will move from your ear to your face, neck, or side of your head. The ear canal will be completely blocked and your lymph nodes will feel swollen. You may even become feverish--not a good sign.
If you’re experiencing any of these symptoms, whether mild or not, you should probably see a doctor. Call immediately or visit an emergency room if you are in severe pain or have a fever.
If you see a doctor, you’re likely to be prescribed either some topical or oral antibiotics in addition to some over-the-counter pain killers. You may even need an anti-fungal medication depending on the severity. The longer you go without treatment, the more complicated it becomes to fix so get into a doctor as soon as you can.
While you’re treating your swimmer’s ear, here are a few things you should avoid:
- Wearing earplugs, hearing aids, in-ear headphones, or anything else you put into your ear canal
- Scuba diving
- Submerging your head underwater
- Flying (if it's within your control)
Take it easy on these tasks until the pain subsides.
Hopefully your summer doesn’t get ruined by a bad case of swimmer’s ear, but you can prevent it by using our five easy tips. Which ones are you likely to use?