After some swimming, water may have entered your ear; then later that day you feel a sharp pain in your ear. Or perhaps some water got in your ear while you were showering, and now you feel like you can’t seem to get it out. No matter who you are, feeling that itchiness and sense of fullness in your ear does not feel good, and may very well be a sign that you have swimmer’s ear.
Luckily, you’re not alone. As reported by Healthline, cases of swimmer’s ear result in almost 2.4 million healthcare visits each year in the United States.
We’re here to bring you all of the information you’ll need to know about swimmer’s ear, including what exactly it is and what causes it, potential symptoms, some of the best ways to treat it, and how to prevent it.
What is Swimmer’s Ear, and What Causes It?
Swimmer’s ear (scientifically known as Otitis externa) is an infection of your outer ear canal. Anyone can get swimmer’s ear. It’s often a result of leftover water that stays in your ear, which creates a moist environment that aids the growth of bacteria, and then eventually leads to a potential infection.
Germs in pools and other places that many people tend to swim are one of the most common causes of swimmer’s ear. In addition, putting your finger, a cotton swab, or other objects in your ears, may lead to swimmer’s ear, as this may damage the thin layer of skin that lines your ear canal. Having an injury to your ear canal, dry ear canal skin, or too much earwax may also be potential causes.
Luckily, swimmer’s ear cannot be spread from one person to another, so you don’t have to worry about keeping your distance from others in the event you do develop it.
Symptoms of Swimmer’s Ear
You should always be paying close attention to your body and how you feel, especially if something doesn’t feel right. If you feel any of the symptoms below a few days after you’ve enjoyed a fun day at the beach or after a grueling workout in the pool, then you may have swimmer’s ear. Be sure not to strain yourself, and follow the appropriate treatment steps that will be discussed in the next section. You may experience some (or all) of these side effects when you have a milder version of swimmer’s ear:
- Itchiness inside the ear
- Redness and swelling of the ear
- Pain when the infected ear is tugged or when pressure is placed on the ear
- Pus draining from the infected ear
These symptoms can progress to become more prominent and painful as time goes on, especially if they are left untreated:
- More intense itching
- Greater pain when tugging or placing pressure on the ear
- More redness in your ear
- Excessive fluid/pus drainage
- Feeling of fullness inside your ear, and partial blockage of your ear canal by swelling, fluid and debris
- Decreased or muffled hearing
If you happen to experience even worse pain in your ear or come down with a fever, then seek medical attention right away. These symptoms may indicate a more serious infection has developed, and you should get professional treatment as soon as possible.
How to Prevent Swimmer’s Ear
Here are some of the most effective ways you can prevent swimmer’s ear:
- Wearing clean earplugs when you swim or shower to prevent any water from entering.
- Putting cotton balls in your ears while washing your hair.
- Wearing a shower cap while showering.
- Tilting your head gently to each side to drain any remaining water out of your ears.
- Pulling on your earlobe in different directions, with your ear facing downwards, to help drain any water out.
- Gently drying the inside of your ears with the edge of a soft towel.
- Using a hair dryer (on the lowest or coolest setting) to gently dry your ears. Hold the dryer at least 12 inches from your head and skillet wave it back and forth.
- Not swimming in polluted water to protect your ears.
- Not sticking fingers, cotton swabs, or other objects deep into your ear canal, or using them with excessive force.
- Cleaning your earbuds or hearing aids before putting them in your ears to prevent germs and bacteria from entering the ear canal.
- Asking your doctor about ear drops you could use to dry your ear canal after swimming or showering, or using a homemade spouting using vinegar and rubbing alcohol.
Also, wearing a swim cap in the pool is another beneficial way to help keep unwanted water and germs out of your ears. However, it may also keep water trapped in your ears if it manages to sneak in somehow, so always be sure that your ears are empty and clean at the end of a swim.
What to Do if you Have Swimmer’s Ear
Not putting excessive pressure on the ear, or jostling your head around too much, can be other helpful ways to reduce any pain you feel. It may be wise to stay away from the pool for a few days as your ear heals, and wash the infected ear gently so as not to irritate it further.
Swimmer’s ear can clear up in 7-10 days with proper care from a medical professional. Some of the most commonly prescribed treatments include taking antibiotic ear drops to kill bacteria or corticosteroid ear drops in order to help reduce any swelling, as well as taking pain medicine and keeping your ear dry (as instructed by your doctor).
When You Should See a Doctor
If your ear doesn’t feel better after a few days or you experience other symptoms, then it may be time to consult your doctor. Per WebMD, “Call if you feel dizzy or have ringing in your ears, which means you may have a more serious problem that needs to get checked out”.
If you feel more severe pain or develop a rash on your scalp or ear, call your doctor immediately. They will be able to prescribe treatments that can quickly cure you and get you back to enjoying your time in the pool!
According to Healthline, anyone that has a condition that makes them more susceptible to getting infections, including diabetes, has a chance of developing a more severe form of swimmer’s ear called malignant otitis externa.
If you get malignant otitis externa, you should head to your nearest hospital immediately to get intravenous antibiotics and receive urgent care. Consult your doctor right away if you know that you’re at a higher risk for developing swimmer’s ear.
Knowing what typically causes swimmer’s ear, as well as being aware of the best ways to treat and prevent it if you do happen to get it, is extremely helpful information to have.
Those who enjoy swimming, either recreationally or competitively, should pay extra attention to their hygiene and ensure that any water that enters their ears gets cleared out after being in the water.
Nothing is worse for a swimmer than leaving the pool and later feeling that earache and fullness — it can definitely keep you out of the pool for a few days in some cases. Keeping your ears dry and clean is the easiest way to avoid dealing with the nasty infection that is swimmer’s ear.