Swimmer’s ear is one of the most common conditions that affect the ear. It’s an infection that occurs in the outer ear canal, which spans from the pinna (the outer ear) to the tympanic membrane (the eardrum). Medically referred to as “otitis externa,” swimmer’s ear can occur in people of all ages, from babies to the elderly.
What Causes Swimmer’s Ear?
Despite the name, swimmer’s ear isn’t the direct result of swimming. The infection occurs when moisture or debris makes its way into the ear and gets trapped in the outer areas of the ear canal. That trapped moisture creates the ideal breeding ground for the growth of bacteria, and that bacteria can eventually invade the skin within the ear canal causing an infection.
While yes, swimmer’s ear can certainly occur as a result of swimming (hence the name), as mentioned, it occurs whenever moisture or debris gets trapped within the ear canal; for example, while bathing, showering, or whenever you’re exposed to a moist environment (especially when your ears are submerged).
Other factors that can lead to swimmer’s ear include:
- Exposure to bacteria that can be found in polluted water, hot tubs, or uncleaned bathtubs.
- Exposure to chemicals, such as hair spray or hair dye, that make their way into the ear canal.
- Excessive use of cotton swabs to clean the ear.
- Putting fingers or any other foreign object into your ears that can lead to damaging the thin layer of skin that lines the ear canal.
- Conditions (such as seborrhea or eczema), cuts, or abrasions that allow bacteria to penetrate into the delicate skin of the ear canal.
Symptoms of Swimmer’s Ear
There are several symptoms that can be associated with swimmer’s ear. Typically, the onset of symptoms are mild, but the longer the infection progresses, the worse the symptoms will become.
Mild symptoms of swimmer’s ear include:
- Itching within the ear canal
- Mild redness within the interior of the ear
- Mild pain or discomfort that worsens when the outer ear (the auricle or pinna) is pulled on or when the small bump on the front of the ear (the tragus) is pushed on
- A slight amount of clear, odorless discharge
The symptoms that can be associated with a moderate swimmer’s ear infection can include:
- Worsened, more intensive itching
- Increased pain
- Increased redness and/or pain within the interior of the ear
- Increased drainage of fluid
- A feeling of fullness within the interior of the ear as a result of a partial blockage within the ear canal caused by fluid, swelling, and debris
- Mild to moderate hearing loss or muffled hearing
In the more advanced stages of swimmer’s ear, the symptoms can include:
- Intense pain within the ear that can extend out to the face, down the neck, and along the side of the head
- A total blockage of the ear canal causing severe hearing loss
- Redness and/or swelling of the outer ear
- Swollen lymph nodes in the neck
- A fever
What are the Complications of Swimmer’s Ear?
If left untreated, a swimmer’s ear infection will worsen and can lead to a number of serious complications.
These complications can include:
- Hearing loss, which can be persistent
- Recurrent ear infections (medically known as chronic otitis externa), and without proper treatment, the infection can become persistent
- Damage to the bone and cartilage within the ear, as the infection could possibly spread to the base of the skull, and into the brain and/or cranial nerves. Those who suffer from diabetes and the elderly, in particular, are at an increased risk of this type of complication that can be associated with swimmer’s ear
Treatment for Swimmer’s Ear
The onset of any of the symptoms (as mentioned above) that are associated with swimmer’s ear should be taken seriously and need to be treated as soon as possible in order to prevent the onset of a worsening infection or further severe symptoms. If you have swimmer’s ear, you can…
- Rub alcohol into the ear.
- Use antibiotic ear drops to kill bacteria and reduce swelling
- Use a mixture of Epsom salt, rubbing alcohol, and hot water to apply to the ear
- Use a blow dryer (on the lowest setting) to apply heat to the affected ear
- Pour a small amount of hydrogen peroxide into the ear
- Keep the ear dry
- Take pain medicine if needed
- There are also home remedies you can use such as mixing vinegar and rubbing alcohol to help dry out the ear as well as prevent further bacteria growth (use can pour about 1 tablespoon of this solution into your ear and then tilt your head to let it drain out)
If symptoms are severe or worsen, be sure to schedule an appointment with your doctor right away.
Lastly, we thought it would be best to give you some tips on how to prevent swimmer’s ear so that hopefully you won’t need all of this information on what causes swimmers ear, the symptoms of swimmer’s ear, related complications, and treatments of swimmers ear.
- Keep your ears as dry as possible whenever you’re near water
- Use well-fitting earplugs meant for water (not foam earplugs meant for keeping out noise) while swimming or during any activity where your ears become submerged underwater
- If your ears do get wet, be sure to thoroughly dry them afterward
- Maintain good earwax hygiene
- Check with your doctor if they say it is okay to use eardrops after swimming (if you don’t have eardrops, you can also use rubbing alcohol, white vinegar, olive oil, or hydrogen peroxide)
- Don’t try to remove wax, especially before you go swimming, because earwax actually does a good job at repelling water
- Take good care of the skin on your ears because dry or cracked skin is much more susceptible to infection (however, you may already be at a higher risk of infection if you have eczema, allergies, or seborrhea)
- Do not go swimming or get your ear(s) near water if you recently got an infection or still have an ear infection
- Do not use a Q-tip after swimming!
Swimmer’s ear may go away on it’s own, but you might not want to take the risk of waiting it out because it could lead to a worsened infection. Either way, having swimmer’s ear is painful so you’ll probably want to treat it as soon as possible. If all else fails and you need professional care right away, you can make an appointment with an otolaryngologist who will be able to suction out your ears to remove water, discharge, earwax, dead skin cells, or other debris. Once the ear is clear, you should feel relieved. If the infection is more severe, you may be prescribed antibiotics as well.