Swimmer’s Ear: Tips for Prevention & Treatment

By Kristine Samson, MD  157612167_7

Summer time is in full effect. For many, this means frequent trips to the beach or lounging by the swimming pool. With plenty of sunblock, water and snacks, you’re ready for a fun-filled day. But lurking behind all that fun in the water is potential for developing swimmer’s ear.

What is Swimmer’s Ear?

Swimmer’s ear is an infection in the outer ear canal, which runs from your eardrum to the outside of your head.

What Causes Swimmer’s Ear?

The most common cause of swimmer’s ear is swimming or prolonged water exposure. Trauma, cotton swabs, fingernails and dermatologic conditions such as eczema also can cause swimmer’s ear since they can damage the thin layer of skin lining the ear canal.
Excess moisture in the ear raises the pH in the ear and removes cerumen, a defense mechanism that creates an acidic environment which inhabits bacterial and fungal growth while also repelling water from penetrating the skin of the ear canal. A warm, moist environment is great for bacterial and fungal growth.

What are the symptoms of swimmer’s ear?

  • Ear pain – mild itching to severe pain worse with the motion of the ear
  • Excessive fluid drainage
  • Discharge from the ear canal
  • Decreased or muffled hearing
  • Feeling of fullness inside your ear or partial blockage of ear canal by swelling, fluid and debris

Your ear canal may be swollen and red, and there may be discharge in the canal. In severe cases the canal may be completely swollen shut and you may run a fever.

How to Treat Swimmer’s Ear

  • Topical antibiotics which treat the two most common bacterial agents – staph and pseudomonas — or acetic acid, which lowers the pH,  may  be used to treat mild infections because bacteria usually does not grow well in acidic environments.
  • Avoid getting water in your ear, so swimming and long showers should be avoided for at least 7 to10 days. When taking a shower, insert a cotton ball gently in front of the opening of the ear canal to help protect the canal.
  • Avoiding trauma to the ear also is important, so “nothing smaller than your elbow” should be placed in your ear canal.

Following the steps listed above should result in improvement within 2 to 3 days with complete resolution in approximately one week. If symptoms don’t improve or worsen, you may need a trip to urgent care or a referral to an ear, nose and throat (ENT) specialist. An ENT specialist may clean debris in the canal that can promote infection and often will place a wick in the canal, which can help spread topical medication.

How to Prevent Infections

Avoid the need for a trip to urgent care, by practicing these prevention tips:

  • Shake water from your ears after swimming
  • Wear ear plugs while swimming
  • Blow-dry the ear after water exposure by placing the blow dryer on a low setting 12 inches away from your ears

So make the most out of your summer – enjoy the ocean waves and the cool waters of your pool, but remember to shake the water from your ears afterwards and wear plenty of sunblock.

About Kristine Samson
Kristine Samson, MD, joined eMedical Urgent Care in 2013. She is board-certified in emergency medicine. She completed her residency at Jacobi/Montefiore Medical Centers, Bronx, N.Y. She is an assistant professor of emergency medicine at Jacobi Medical Center.

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