Auditory System Hearing Disorders Swimmers Ear

Otitis externa (commonly called swimmer’s ear) is a common inflammation, irritation or infection of the outer ear. The “swimmer’s ear” term comes from the fact that exposing the ear to water for extended periods of time can produce otitis externa. The most common symptom is ear pain.

If you suspect swimmer’s ear, see your doctor and he will advise you about the best course of treatment.

What Causes Swimmer’s Ear?

Your ear has natural protective features to help prevent infection. Glands in the ear canal secrete cerumen (ear wax) that creates a watertight seal on the skin, preventing bacterial growth.

When the ear is exposed to excess moisture, cerumen is broken down, making its defenses less effective, and the ear more susceptible to infection. Bacteria can then cause infection in the layer of skin lining the ear canal. Abrasion in the ear canal can also make the skin more susceptible to infection. Swimming in lake water, which often has higher levels of bacteria than ocean water, may also increase your chances of developing this type of ear infection.

Otitis Externa - Swimmers Ear - Hearing Disorders

Symptoms of Swimmer’s Ear

Early symptoms of swimmer’s ear include:

  • Itching
  • Redness
  • Pain or discomfort
  • Possible drainage.

Without treatment, the infection can progress and symptoms will worsen. Discharge can persist and begin to show more signs of infection (e.g. pus), and pain can worsen and radiate out to areas surrounding the ear. In severe cases, swimmer’s ear can cause temporary hearing difficulty.

Swimmer’s Ear Treatment

Swimmer’s ear can be effectively treated with eardrops. At your appointment, your doctor will clean your ear, and then prescribe antibiotic ear drops. Oral antibiotics may be prescribed for severe cases.

It’s important to avoid moisture in the ear canal during otitis externa infection. In particular, if you have this condition, you should take care not to submerge your ears under water, and place a cotton ball in your ear while showering. You may need to avoid swimming for one to two weeks, depending on your doctor’s advice.

Can Swimmer’s Ear be Prevented?

Not all cases of swimmer’s ear can be prevented, but you can take measures to reduce your chances of developing a swimmer’s ear infection:

  • Avoid swimming in water that may have a high bacterial content
  • Dry ears after swimming or bathing, and allow water to drain from the ear (however, do not stick foreign objects, such as cotton swabs, into the ear canal)
  • A swimmer’s ear remedy you can try at home includes placing drops of a half vinegar/half rubbing alcohol solution into the ear canal, then tipping it back out. This can help to dry excess water from the ear. Seek professional health advice first before attempting home remedies that may be risky.

If you swim frequently, you may want to try these measures to help prevent swimmer’s ear.

Resources

KidsHealth (n.d.). Swimmer’s ear. Retrieved February 10, 2010, from Kidshealth.com Web site: http://kidshealth.org/kid/ill_injure/aches/swimmers_ear.html.

Mayo Clinic (n.d.). Swimmer’s ear. Retrieved February 10, 2010, from Mayo Clinic Web site: http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/swimmers-ear/DS00473.