July 23, 2023

How To Steer Clear of Swimmer’s Ear

Ear plugs, bathing caps, hydrogen peroxide and hair dryers can all help keep ears clean and dry

child swimming under water

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.

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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.

How do you get swimmer’s ear?

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!

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Swimmer’s ear and summertime

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.

Who’s most at risk for swimmer’s ear?

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.

Swimmer’s ear prevention do’s and don’ts

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.

Do…

Dr. Freeman recommends doing the following to prevent swimmer’s ear:

  • Use hydrogen peroxide. Clean your ears occasionally with a 3% hydrogen peroxide solution. That can help remove excess earwax, which can trap water in your ear. Use about half of an ear dropper full. Let it bubble and fizz. Then, turn your head to the side and pull back on the top of your ear to allow it to drain properly. Make sure you use drying drops (if approved by your provider) or use a hair dryer to ensure no moisture gets left behind in your ear canal.
  • Use a hair dryer. Speaking of hair dryers, you can use a hair dryer any time you need to dry out your ear canal gently and indirectly. Just make sure you’re using low or no heat and have the dryer a safe distance from your skin.
  • Wear ear plugs or bathing caps. While not the most attractive swim accessories, ear plugs and bathing caps can help keep water out of your ears. But remember: They can also trap water in your ears. So — no matter how careful you are to keep your ears dry in the pool, be sure to dry your ears well after swimming.
  • Avoid getting irritating chemicals in your ear. Especially if you struggle with dry, sensitive, skin — or a skin condition like eczema — it’s important to keep potential irritants out of your ear canal. For example, try using earplugs or cotton balls to cover your ears while you style your hair.

Don’t…

Preventing swimmer’s ear also requires avoiding certain activities. Among them:

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  • Don’t swim in dirty water. You’re more likely to get swimmer’s ear if you swim in natural bodies of water, or pools and hot tubs that aren’t properly maintained.
  • Don’t use cotton swabs or tissues to clean or dry your ears. They can scratch the skin in your ear canal and make conditions worse. They can also damage your eardrum and stimulate overproduction of ear wax.
  • Don’t try to remove ear wax. One of the reasons we have wax in our ear canals is to protect them from infection, so let it be! If you feel like your ears are truly clogged with the stuff — and a 3% hydrogen peroxide solution isn’t helping — contact a healthcare provider. They can check your ears and decide how best to remove excess wax.
  • Don’t use ear-drying drops without talking to a provider first. They sound like a magic bullet in the fight against swimmer’s ear, but these drops aren’t for everybody — especially people who have other medical issues involving their ears. Before using them, make sure you’ve had your ears examined and reviewed your medical history with a healthcare provider. They’ll let you know if the benefits outweigh the risks — and teach you how to properly use the products.

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.

How to treat swimmer’s ear (and keep it from coming back)

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:

  • Clean your ear safely.
  • Recommend the correct ear drops for your situation.
  • Show you how to use them.

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.”​

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