How Does Swimmer's Ear Happen, and How Can I Avoid It?

Sep 06, 2023
How Does Swimmer's Ear Happen, and How Can I Avoid It?
Are you feeling that usual itchy ear discomfort after this morning’s workout in the pool? Tired of dealing with swimmer’s ear? Explore the causes of this familiar infection and the preventative strategies our specialist recommends you try. 

Whether you're a seasoned swimmer doing laps at the pool or someone who enjoys a casual dip in the ocean during summer, you may have experienced the discomfort of swimmer's ear.

Medically identified as otitis externa, swimmer’s ear is a problem many water enthusiasts experience. The good news? It's easily treated when addressed early. Better news? It’s preventable.

Philip T. Ho, MD, FACS, at Silicon Valley ENT & Sinus Center in Los Gatos, California, specializes in accurately diagnosing and treating ear, nose, and throat issues, including swimmer’s ear.

Take a look at what Dr. Ho says about the causes of swimmer’s ear, symptoms you can expect, and how to prevent it.

What is swimmer’s ear?

Swimmer's ear occurs when the outer ear canal becomes infected or inflamed. It differs from the more common infection (otitis media) that kids frequently experience that affects the middle ear.

Otitis externa is commonly called “swimmer's ear” because it often occurs when water remains in the ear after swimming, creating a moist environment where bacteria can grow.

Although frustrating, swimmer’s ear is not usually a serious concern when treated promptly, usually with medicated eardrops that may contain antibiotics, steroids to reduce inflammation, or antifungal medication.

However, left untreated, the infection may deepen and spread, leading to complications like temporary hearing loss, widespread skin infection (cellulitis), chronic infection, and damage to ear cartilage. 

While very rare, otitis externa can also evolve into osteomyelitis, potentially spreading infection to the brain or nearby nerves.   

What are the symptoms of swimmer’s ear?

Symptoms of swimmer’s ear can vary and may worsen as the infection evolves but typically include:

  • Itching inside the ear
  • Pain that's aggravated by pulling on the earlobe or chewing
  • Redness and swelling of the outer ear canal
  • Fluid or pus draining from the ear
  • Muffled hearing
  • Redness or warmth inside the ear
  • Feeling as if your ear is full of fluid

If the infection advances, you may also develop worsening pain traveling to your face, neck, and head, fever, and swelling in nearby lymph nodes.  

What causes swimmer’s ear, and how do I prevent it?

Prevention typically includes avoiding the underlying causes of swimmer’s ear, which may include:

  • Water trapped in the ear canal, creating a moist environment where bacteria and fungi thrive
  • Tiny scratches where bacteria take root, caused by cleaning the ears with cotton swabs, etc.
  • Irritation from hair care products
  • Excessive earwax trapping water in the canal

To avoid swimmer’s ear, dry your ears thoroughly after swimming or bathing and refrain from using cotton swabs or your fingers to clean the ears.

If you’re prone to swimmer's ear or plan on swimming frequently, consider using silicone or rubber earplugs to keep water out.

You can also try a homemade eardrop solution to help keep ears dry and prevent bacterial or fungal growth. Place a small amount of a solution made from equal parts white vinegar and rubbing alcohol in each ear before and after swimming.

Allow the solution to sit in the ear momentarily, then tip your head so it drains completely. Do not use this solution if you have ear tubes, an eardrum perforation, or an ear infection.

Try to swim in clean waters, avoiding areas with high bacterial content, and ensure hair care products don't enter your ears.

Schedule a visit with Dr. Ho today for an accurate diagnosis and treatment for swimmer’s ear. Call the office or request an appointment online.