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Swimmer’s Ear Just Doesn’t Happen to Swimmers

By James F.X. Kenealy, MD
Division of Otolaryngology (ENT)

Whether you love to spend your summer days at the lake, ocean or favorite pool, chances are you have experienced the pain of swimmer’s ear at some point. Swimmer’s ear is aptly named, as it commonly occurs to those who spend a lot of time in the water (especially children). Swimmer’s ear is caused when too much moisture stays in the ear and irritates and then breaks down the skin inside the ear canal – letting bacteria or fungi take hold and cause an infection.

However, you actually don’t have to go swimming to get swimmer’s ear, it can happen due to scratching, dry skin, putting foreign objects in the ear, even too vigorous ear cleaning with cotton swabs. Swimmer’s ear is different than a middle ear infection since it occurs only in the ear canal. In fact, a middle ear infection can increase your risk of getting swimmer’s ear.

Key Signs of Swimmer’s Ear:

  • Pain in the ear.

The pain can be severe and will get worse if the outer part of the ear is pulled or pressed on.

  • Itching in the ear canal.

This is often the first sign of swimmer’s ear.

  • Swelling in the ear canal.

The outer ear may look red or swollen.

  • Discharge from the ear canal

Keep in mind this doesn’t happen in all cases.

  • Hearing is affected.

This occurs when swelling or pus blocks the passage of sound into the ear.

Treating Swimmer’s Ear

The good news about swimmer’s ear is that it responds well to treatment. You should call your doctor immediately if you (or your child) experience pain in the ear with or without fever, decreased hearing in one or both ears, or abnormal discharge from the ear. Treatment depends on the severity of the infection and how painful it is. Antibiotic drops can be prescribed to fight the infection, sometimes mixed with a steroid solution to reduce swelling. Treatment usually lasts seven to ten days.

If the swelling in your ear canal makes it hard for the drops to work, your doctor may insert a wick into the canal to help carry the medicine to where it is needed. For severe infections, oral antibiotics can be prescribed. Many patients take over-the-counter pain relievers to manage their ear pain. If the pain is too severe, a prescription pain medication can be used. Acetaminophen or ibuprofen is the best non-prescription medicine to use.

Remember that ear infections need to be treated by a healthcare professional. Otherwise, the pain will get worse and the infection has the potential to spread. Do your best to keep your ear dry during treatment.

Some Tips to Prevent Swimmer’s Ear:

  • Use a towel to dry your ears off well.
  • Tilt your head down to allow water to escape from your ear after swimming or a shower.
  • Pull your earlobe in different directions to help water escape from the ear.
  • You can help keep water out of the ear by using a silicone putty ear plug or a cotton ball swabbed in petroleum jelly when swimming, showering, bathing or washing your hair.
  • Avoid putting objects in the ear canal (including cotton swabs or your finger).
  • It’s not a good idea to remove ear wax as it helps protect your ear from infection. (Contact your healthcare provider if you think your ear canal is blocked by wax.)
Swimmer’s Ear Just Doesn’t Happen to Swimmers

About James F.X. Kenealy, MD

Growing up in the Hudson Valley in New York, Dr. James F.X. Kenealy was very close to his grandfather who became ill and eventually passed away from lung cancer. “It was a very frustrating and disheartening experience. I felt very helpless that I couldn’t do anything,” he explains. “That made me want to have a medical career so I could do something to help others in a similar situation.”

Now a board-certified...

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