It’s summertime and the water’s fine. Maybe you love counting laps. Maybe a lazy river’s more your speed. Or maybe you’re less interested in making waves and more inclined to load up on sunscreen and beach reads.
Cleveland Clinic is a non-profit academic medical center. Advertising on our site helps support our mission. We do not endorse non-Cleveland Clinic products or services. Policy
No matter how you choose to celebrate the season, this much is certain: Swimmer’s ear can really dampen the mood.
But what is swimmer’s ear exactly? And why do we call it “swimmer’s ear” if you don’t have to swim to get it?
We talked to head and neck specialist Richard Freeman, MD, to find out what causes this unpleasant condition, why it tends to happen most during the summer and what you can do to reduce your chances of getting it.
You don’t have to swim to get swimmer’s ear, also called otitis externa — but water is definitely part of the equation. So, what is it about water that causes swimmer’s ear?
Bacteria that normally inhabit the skin and ear canal begin to multiply in those warm, wet conditions and cause irritation, infection or inflammation. Occasionally, a fungal infection causes the same result.
“The ear canal is dark and warm, so if it gets wet, you have all the ingredients for a Petri dish to grow bacteria,” Dr. Freeman explains.
And as we mentioned, despite the name, you don’t have to swim regularly to get swimmer’s ear. That said, the condition is more common when people are in water often. People can even develop swimmer’s ear from bathing or showering!
You’ve probably guessed that swimmer’s ear is more common in warm weather, when you’re most likely to hit the pool, water park or beach. Swimming in public waters that are heavily polluted or lounging in hot tubs that aren’t properly disinfected can put you at greater risk of contact with excessive bacteria.
But summertime conditions can take their toll even if you’re not a swimmer.
“Many of the people I see with the otitis externa infection have not been swimming,” Dr. Freeman notes. A landlubber’s ear can become infected because the bacteria is more likely to get damp due to summer heat, humidity levels and perspiration, he says.
You may be surprised to learn that the shape of your ears can make you more or less likely to get swimmer’s ear. People with diabetes are also more prone to the condition. Having allergies or skin conditions such as eczema, psoriasis or seborrhea can increase your risk of swimmer’s ear as well — or make the infection worse.
While there’s not much you can do about the particular curves of your ears, experts say there are ways to help prevent swimmer’s ear. According to Dr. Freeman, the most important way to prevent swimmer’s ear is to keep your ears clean and dry.
Dr. Freeman recommends doing the following to prevent swimmer’s ear:
Preventing swimmer’s ear also requires avoiding certain activities. Among them:
Of course, even following all of Dr. Freeman’s do’s and don’ts isn’t a guarantee that you won’t get swimmer’s ear at some point. The good news: Swimmer’s ear is treatable — and if you act quickly, it shouldn’t cause significant damage.
Typically, you can identify a swimmer’s ear infection by redness and swelling of your ear canal and outer ear (the part that you can see around the opening), itching, pain, pus drainage, a feeling of fullness and sometimes, hearing loss.
You can sometimes reduce inflammation by cleaning and drying the ear canal. In most cases, this requires applying antibiotic or anti-fungal ear drops. The drops need to reach your skin in order to work, so cleaning your ear with hydrogen peroxide, for example, is important.
If you look on the internet, you’ll find home remedies for swimmer’s ear. But according to Dr. Freeman, a trip to a doctor is your best bet. That way, you don’t risk undertreating the condition — or making it worse. A provider can:
If it doesn’t resolve, Dr. Freeman advises that you don’t let the condition go.
“If left untreated, swimmer’s ear can get worse and harder to treat,” he warns. “Occasionally, you might need prescription oral antibiotics and, in extreme conditions, may need to be admitted to the hospital.”