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Listen Up: How to Deal With Swimmer’s Ear

Reviewed by: Dr. Steven Knauf, D.C.

By: Sara Butler

Listen Up: How to Deal With Swimmer’s Ear

Summer is all about fun in the sun, and the last thing you want to associate with your good times is something like a nasty infection. Unfortunately, conditions like swimmer’s ear can really throw a wrench in your summer plans. Known medically as otitis externa, swimmer’s ear is an infection of the outer ear that loves to strike when the weather is warm and you’re just trying to enjoy life.

Don’t worry—the good news is swimmer’s ear is avoidable and, if you do get it, treatable. The chiropractors at The Joint Chiropractic are here to help you keep this pesky infection from putting a damper on your summer fun.

What causes swimmer’s ear?

Swimmer’s ear is an infection of the outer part of the ear, specifically, the canal that connects the outside of your ear to your eardrum. It tends to happen when water remains in the ear canal after swimming, which creates a moist environment in which bacteria or fungi can grow.

It’s a concern for people who have prolonged exposure to water, have certain skin conditions such as psoriasis or eczema, or have blockages in their ear canal—such as earwax buildup, for example.

A person is also at risk of developing swimmer’s ear if they have any injuries to their ear canal. Anyone who uses cotton swabs or other objects such as fingernails to clean their ears can cause damage to the ear canal that can serve as an entry point for an infection.

Chemicals can also play a role in susceptibility to this type of infection. Any type of chemical (think products like hairspray) that gets into the ear canal can cause irritation. Frequent exposure to chlorinated water can also alter the natural balance of the ear canal, which may lead to infections.

What are the symptoms of swimmer’s ear?

If you’re spending a lot of time in the water this summer, then it’s important to know the symptoms of swimmer’s ear. These symptoms can be mild or quite severe.

Ear pain — The pain can be severe and tends to worsen when the outer part of the ear is touched or pulled.

Itching — The ear canal may feel itchy.

Redness and swelling — The outer ear canal can become red and swollen.

Discharge — There may be a clear, yellow, or puss-like fluid discharge from the ear.

Feeling of fullness or blockage — The ear might feel full or clogged.

Decreased hearing — Hearing can be temporarily reduced if the ear canal is swollen or filled with discharge.

Tenderness — The area around the ear, including the earlobe, may be tender to touch.

Swelling of the lymph nodes — Swelling of the lymph nodes around the ear or in the neck can occur.

Fever — A high fever can indicate a more serious infection.

Radiating pain — If you have pain that goes beyond the ear to the neck, head, or face, then this may signify that the infection is spreading beyond the ear canal.

If you experience these symptoms, especially if they worsen or are accompanied by fever, it is important to seek medical attention promptly to prevent complications and ensure proper treatment.

What are the risks of swimmer’s ear?

Swimmer’s ear can lead to serious complications if it’s not treated properly. Aside from severe pain and discomfort, temporary hearing loss, and the risk of the outer ear infection spreading, chronic issues can occur.

It’s not unheard of for people to struggle with chronic bouts of swimmer’s ear. This can cause persistent itching and discomfort. The skin of the ear canal can become thick, which can narrow the canal and make it more likely for infections to occur in the future.

Severe complications can also occur. If you have a weakened immune system or suffer from another chronic condition such as diabetes, then you could develop something called malignant otitis externa. This is a rare complication, but it occurs when the infection spreads beyond the ear canal to the cartilage and bones of the ear and skull. It’s very serious and needs to be treated right away.

Other severe complications from swimmer’s ear include lasting hearing damage and the formation of abscesses.

If you are someone who has other health issues, then it’s vital to treat swimmer’s ear as soon as you suspect it may be happening so that these more severe complications can be avoided.

How can you prevent swimmer’s ear?

To prevent swimmer’s ear, you must take steps to ensure that your ear canal is kept as dry as possible. This means drying off your ears immediately after swimming or bathing and ensuring you do what you can to drain water from your ears.

When you’re going to be in the water, it’s also important to use swim caps or earplugs to keep the water from ever getting in. You should also avoid swimming in dirty water, such as lakes and rivers if you struggle with recurrent infections like swimmer’s ear. Make sure the places you choose to swim are properly maintained.

It’s also a good idea to protect the skin of your ear canal out of the pool. This means you should avoid putting anything in your ear, such as fingernails or cotton swabs. You can use preventative ear drops purchased over the counter as well. And if you have a skin condition, then make sure to manage it by following your doctor’s instructions.

How is swimmer’s ear treated?

Swimmer’s ear can be treated in a variety of ways. If you notice the beginnings of irritation, then you should endeavor to keep your ears as dry as possible. There are also many over-the-counter products specifically made to treat swimmer’s ear that can be used. You can also take pain relievers at home to help with discomfort.

When being treated by a doctor, they may prescribe antibiotic ear drops, steroid ear drops, or antifungal ear drops, depending on the cause and severity of the swimmer’s ear. A doctor may also prescribe oral antibiotics and pain relievers.

Healthcare providers may also take steps such as cleaning your ear canals or placing cotton wicks in them if the swelling is significant. Don’t attempt to treat yourself with any of these procedures at home-only a trained professional should be doing them.

How to keep your ears healthy this summer

You may not think about your ears daily, but if you start to have issues with them due to swimmer’s ear, then you’ll realize just how important it is to take steps to keep them healthy in the first place.

There are several things you can do to keep your ears healthy all summer long -- and enjoy as much pool, lake, ocean, or river time as you want.

Use earplugs — Wear waterproof earplugs designed for swimming to keep water out of your ears. Make sure they fit snugly but comfortably.

Wear a swim cap — Use a swim cap that covers your ears to help prevent water from entering the ear canal.

Keep ears dry — After swimming, tilt your head to each side to help water drain out of your ears. Gently dry your outer ears with a towel. Avoid inserting the towel into the ear canal. Use a hairdryer on the lowest setting, held at least a foot away from your ear, to help evaporate any remaining moisture.

Do not put objects in your ear — Avoid using cotton swabs, fingernails, or other objects to clean your ears because they can cause abrasions or push wax deeper into the ear canal.

Avoid swimming in polluted water — Do not swim in lakes, rivers, or pools that are not properly maintained or that might be contaminated.

Manage earwax — Earwax provides a natural barrier against infections. Avoid over-cleaning your ears to maintain this protective layer. If you have excessive earwax, then consider having it removed by a healthcare professional.

Treat skin conditions — If you have skin conditions such as eczema or psoriasis, then manage them according to your healthcare provider’s recommendations, especially around the ears.

Consult a healthcare provider — If you experience frequent ear infections or discomfort, seek advice from a healthcare provider. They may recommend additional protective measures or treatments.

Avoid prolonged water exposure — Limit the amount of time spent in the water, especially if you are prone to ear infections.

Monitor for symptoms — Be aware of the early symptoms of swimmer's ear, such as itching, mild discomfort, or a feeling of fullness in the ear. Addressing these symptoms early can help prevent a full-blown infection.

Summer is the time to be outside enjoying all nature has to offer—including taking a refreshing dip. Don’t let swimmer’s ear keep you from doing the things you love, but just be aware of what you can do to prevent it from becoming a problem that gets in the way of all that summer fun.

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