A swimmer’s guide to swimmer’s ear

Swimmer’s ear, or its medical name of otitis externa, is an infection in the outer ear canal, which runs from your eardrum to the outside of your head.

It can be an unwelcome souvenir of hours of swimming, both in the pool and ocean (although you can get it on dry land too), and while the symptoms usually start mild, the infection can be painful for some.

In this article, we take a deep dive into what causes swimmer’s ear, how to treat it and how you can prevent getting it in the first place. 

What is Swimmer’s Ear? 

Swimmer’s ear is inflammation, infection or irritation in the outer ear canal.

It usually occurs when water gets trapped in your ear, which can then cause the spread of bacteria or fungal organisms. 

Because this condition commonly affects swimmers, it is known as swimmer’s ear. Although, those who have eczema or experience excess earwax can also suffer from swimmer’s ear. 

Swimmer’s ear usually gets better quickly with treatment and there are several measures you can do to prevent swimmers ear. If you are experiencing pain in your ears, you should consult your doctor. 

A diagram of swimmer’s ear

Causes of swimmer’s ear 

Swimmer’s ear is caused by a bacterial infection. You are at an increased risk of getting swimmer’s ear if you regularly get water in the ear, such as when going swimming, however, it can be caused by a number of non-swimming-related reasons. 

When swimmers get swimmer’s ear, it’s likely to have been caused by the ear being immersed in water for long periods of time, increasing the chance of (1) dirty water delivering bacteria to the ear canal and, (2) a constantly wet ear canal becoming prone to dermatitis, a contributor to swimmer’s ear. 

Other causes include:

  • Chemical irritation: shampoos, conditioners, hair dyes and hair sprays can get into the ear canal and irritate the tissues causing swimmer’s ear
  • Diabetes: This can cause earwax that is too alkaline, which causes a more hospitable environment for infectious agents
  • Folliculitis: Swimmers ear can be caused by an infected follicle within the ear canal which can trigger a generalised infection
  • Middle ear infection: An infection within the middle ear can trigger an infection or inflammation within the ear canal
  • Narrow ear canals: Some people have narrower ear canals than usual, this means that water can’t drain effectively causing swimmer’s ear
  • Mechanical damage: When attempting to clean your ears using fingers, cotton buds or other objects you may damage or cut the delicate tissue within the ear canal which can lead to an infection or inflammation causing swimmers ear. 

How to know if you have swimmer’s ear

There are many symptoms of swimmer’s ear, so if you experience any of these, it would be worth seeing a doctor early for treatment: 

  • Itching within the ear
  • Pain in the outer ear, can be anywhere from a slight ache to severe pain which increases while chewing 
  • Muffled hearing 
  • A popping or squelching sensation when you move your ear or jaw 
  • Tenderness in the ear when moving it or your jaw 
  • Pressure or fullness feeling in the ear 
  • Discharge from the ear, this can look clear and watery or pussy 
  • A foul smell coming from the ear 
  • Buzzing or humming inside the ear 

How to treat swimmer’s ear 

If you think you might have swimmer’s ear, you should consult your doctor and they will examine your ear canal and tympanic membrane to ensure it is not torn or damaged.   

Treatment for swimmers ear depends on the severity of it but may include: 

  • Prescribed ear drops 
  • Drainage or cleaning of the ear canal
  • Painkillers 
  • Antifungal medications 
  • Oral antibiotics 
  • A wick inserted into the ear canal to deliver prescribed drops to the eardrum 
  • Measures to keep the ear dry such as earplugs 

Once treatment has started, you will usually see an improvement within one to three days. 

During treatment for swimmers ear you should: 

  • Avoid getting your ear canal wet – which means no swimming 🙁
  • Avoid inserting anything into your ear canal such as cotton buds 
  • Avoid scratching, touching or pulling at your ear 

How to prevent swimmer’s ear? 

To ensure your love of swimming isn’t interrupted by an annoying case of swimmer’s ear, prevention is the best medicine.

The following measures will reduce your chances of getting swimmer’s ear: 

  • Use earplugs (or SwimSeal) while swimming
  • Avoid swimming in dirty water
  • Tilt your head after swimming to try and remove as much water as possible 
  • Try a product such as Aqua Ear that helps to dry out the ear canal and relieve it of any trapped water
  • Dry the ear canal with a hairdryer following your swim. Keep the hairdryer on low heat and at least 30 centimetres away from the ear canal
  • Avoid interesting your fingers, cotton buds or other objects in your ears 
  • Try not to remove earwax, it helps fight against inflammation and infection 
  • Avoid getting shampoo, conditions, hair dye and hairspray within your ear canal 

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