Learn about otitis externa, the painful condition known as “swimmer’s ear” – and what you can do to prevent it.
When water gets trapped in your ear canal,it can cause a bothersome condition called swimmer’s ear or otitis externa. It is common in swimmers, but moisture from bathing, showering, or spending time in humid climates can also increase the risk.
Swimmer’s ear is usually caused by a bacteria or a fungus. These are normally found in the ear canal but can multiply in dampness, causing infection, irritation, and swelling. Other causes of otitis externa include eczema and psoriasis.
Symptoms of swimmer’s ear
The most common symptoms of swimmer’s ear are mild to moderate pain and an itchy ear. The pain may get worse when you tug on the outer part of your ear. Other symptoms may include:
- A feeling that your ear is blocked or full
- Watery or thick drainage from the ear
- Decreased hearing
- Facial, jaw, or ear pain, especially when you move your jaw or pull on your ear lobe
- Swollen lymph nodes
- Redness or swelling around your ear
A swimmer’s ear infection can spread to nearby tissues, such as the outer ear, cartilage, and bone. This can cause temporary hearing loss or chronic ear infections. Infection can also spread to the skull, brain, or nerves. This can become life-threatening, especially in older people and people with diabetes
Treatment for swimmer’s ear
Call your doctor if you think you have swimmer’s ear. After taking a look, your doctor may prescribe ear drops to treat infection and reduce inflammation.
If your ear canal is swollen shut, your doctor may use a sponge or wick in the ear canal so drops can reach the infected areas. Your doctor may also suggest that you take pain medication.
With treatment, you should get better within 7 to 10 days. Your doctor may tell you to avoid getting water in your ears until the symptoms are gone.
Preventing swimmer’s ear
The best way to prevent swimmer’s ear is to keep your ears dry. Ears free of moisture are less likely to become infected. Follow these tips:
- Dry your ears well after swimming or showering. Turn your head side to side and gently pull on your earlobes to help water run out of your ears. Use a hand towel or a hair dryer on the lowest (coolest) setting to help remove any excess water. If you still have trouble getting the water out, ask your doctor or pharmacist about special alcohol-based ear drops that can help.
- Wear a tight-fitting bathing cap when swimming. This will help protect your ears from water. Don’t use earplugs. Using earplugs may up your risk of getting swimmer’s ear.
- Do not use cotton swabs or put any other objects in your ears. They can push material deeper into your ear canal, remove protective earwax, and irritate the thin skin of the ear canal. This creates a perfect setup for infection.
If you tend to have itchy, flaky ears or extensive earwax, you’re more likely to get swimmer’s ear. In that case, it can be helpful to have your doctor clean your ears from time to time.