How to prevent and treat swimmer's ear

Posted at 2:51 PM, Jul 12, 2016
and last updated 2016-07-12 14:51:07-04

The arrival of summer's long, hot days means it's swimming season. A leisurely dip in the water is a nice way to cool off, but take precautions to prevent a common infection known as swimmer’s ear.

What is it?

Don't be fooled by the name. You don’t have to go swimming to get swimmer’s ear. In fact, any activity that lets moisture enter the outer ear can cause swimmer’s ear, also known as “otitis externa.”

Otitis externa is not the same as typical ear infections of the middle ear (“otitis media”), which happen when bacteria and fluid from a common cold collect behind the eardrum. Instead, otitis externa occurs when moisture remains in the outer ear canal to aid bacterial or fungal growth.



How does it happen?

Plenty of things can cause an infection in your ear canal or outer ear. Usually, the cause has something to do with moisture or irritation of the skin that lines the canal. Additionally, earwax keeps water, debris and bacteria away from your ear canal, so cleaning it can cause problems.

Here are some easily avoidable causes of swimmer’s ear:

  • Using cotton swabs or other objects to remove earwax and instead pushing dead skin deeper into the ear canal
  • Trying to scratch an itch inside the ear with hairpins or other objects
  • After swimming, neglecting to dry the ears properly
  • Not leaving enough earwax to stave off bacteria and water
  • Getting hairspray or hair product in the ear

How can you prevent it?

Some people may be prone to swimmer’s ear and other ear infections if they have psoriasis, eczema or allergies. Preventing it is still possible by keeping ears clean and dry. Whenever you bathe, shower or go swimming, use a soft towel afterward to gently dry the outside of your ear. If you feel water in your ear, tilt your head to the side and jump or shake to let the water escape. If you still feel like your ear canal has water in it, gently pat the inside with a tissue or toilet paper.

How can you treat it?

Many home remedies prevent and treat swimmer’s ear, as well as over-the-counter eardrops. One home remedy requires equal parts white vinegar (acid to kill bacteria) and rubbing alcohol (an evaporative antibacterial). Add one or two drops per ear.

When it comes to infections, it’s always best to consult a medical professional. Your doctor will assess your ear, clear out any debris and may prescribe a combination of antibiotics, acidic eardrops or a steroid to reduce inflammation. If using antibiotics, complete the full course to clear up any infection and prevent resistant bacteria in the future. You can also take pain relievers, such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen, to ease pain from the infection.

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, so avoid swimmer's ear and, if you end up with an ear that is itchy, tender or draining fluid, make a doctor's appointment right away to take care of it.