Treating and Preventing Swimmer’s Ear

By: Paula Phillips-Hastay, ARNP

img-swimmers-earWith summer in full swing, children and families enjoy frequent trips to the swimming pool, lake or water park. Although the water can be cool and refreshing during the summer heat, added time around water can lead to unforeseen consequences such as swimmer’s ear. This common infection plagues many water lovers throughout the summer. However, swimmer’s ear can be avoided with proper prevention methods.

Swimmer’s ear, known as otitis externa by medical professionals, occurs when the ear canal becomes inflamed and infected. Excess moisture, usually from swimming or routine showering, causes the skin inside the ear canal to flake producing an itching sensation. This often prompts people to scratch their ears, causing breaks in the skin. These breaks allow bacteria or fungus to invade the tissue of the ear canal and cause infection.

Although water is the prominent cause of swimmer’s ear, this type of infection can develop from other sources. Other skin conditions, including seborrheic dermatitis and psoriasis, also can lead to swimmer’s ear. Excessive and improper cleaning of wax from the ears is another common cause of swimmer’s ear.

Those with swimmer’s ear typically possess the following symptoms: itching inside the ear, watery discharge from the ear, severe pain and tenderness in and around the ear, yellowish discharge from the ear and temporarily muffled hearing. Generally not a dangerous condition, swimmer’s ear often clears up on its own within a few days. If symptoms persist, a quick trip to your physician’s office will usually do the trick. The physician may clean your ear with a cotton-tipped probe or flush the ear canal with water to relieve the irritation and remove debris. Your doctor may also prescribe eardrops that will help with itching and fight infection. If the pain is severe, your doctor may suggest an over-the counter pain reliever.

There are numerous ways to avoid developing swimmer’s ear. Here are some helpful prevention tactics:

  • Be careful when cleaning your ears. Wipe the outer ear with a clean washcloth. Don’t dig into your ear canal. Never use a sharp or pointed object, like a pencil, hairpin or your fingernail, when cleaning your ears.
  • Keep ears dry when bathing. Use a shower cap to keep your ears dry in the shower or bathtub. You may also try drying your ears with a hair dryer immediately after showering. Be sure to set it on low and hold it about 12 inches from your ear.
  • Avoid swimming in dirty water. Bacteria in polluted water often find a home in the moist environment of an inflamed ear canal.
  • Kill germs in the ear. Dry out your ear and help it kill germs by putting a few drops of a mixture of isopropyl alcohol and white vinegar into your ear after swimming.

Although swimmer’s ear isn’t a serious health condition, it can be painful. That’s why we should take extra precaution while at the pool or beach this summer. Following these prevention methods for swimmer’s ear will help make your next trip to the pool or beach more enjoyable and free from swimmer’s ear.