How to Steer Clear of Swimmer’s Ear

Tips for prevention and treatment
young swimmer with swimming cap and eye goggles

You may be surprised to learn that the shape of your ears can make you more or less likely to get swimmer’s ear, a painful outer ear infection. 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.

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The infection, which doctors call otitis externa, most commonly occurs when water lingers in your ear canal. Despite the name, you don’t have to swim regularly to get swimmer’s ear. But the condition is more common when people are in water often.

Head and neck specialist Richard Freeman, MD, says the most important way to prevent swimmer’s ear is to keep your ears clean and dry.

Here are his do’s and don’ts:

  • Do use hydrogen peroxide. Clean your ears occasionally with a 3% hydrogen peroxide solution to remove ear wax that can trap water in your ear. Use about half of an ear dropper full. Let it bubble and fizz, and 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 or your hair dryer to dry the ear canal so that no moisture is left behind.
  • 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.
  • Do use a hair dryer. You can use a hair dryer to gently and indirectly dry out your ear canal if it gets wet.
  • Do wear ear plugs or bathing caps. These can help keep water out of your ears. However, they can also trap water in your ears, so be sure to dry your ears well after swimming.

Why water and dampness can cause swimmer’s ear

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,” says Dr. Freeman.

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Why summertime leaves you at risk

The infection is more common in warm weather when you’re more 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 says. A landlubber’s ear can become infected because the bacteria is more likely to get damp due to summer heat and humidity levels and perspiration, he says.

Allergies or skin conditions such as eczema, psoriasis or seborrhea can make your ear infection worse. Also, diabetics are more prone to swimmer’s ear infections.

People can even develop swimmer’s ear from bathing or showering.

Best treatment for swimmer’s ear

Typically, you can identify a swimmer’s ear infection by redness and swelling of the ear canal and outer ear (the part that you can see around the opening), itching, pain, pus drainage and sometimes hearing loss.

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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. 

However, Dr. Freeman says it’s never a good idea to put water into your ears.

He says you can start with over-the-counter drying agents. However, he says a trip to your doctor is best so that they can:

  • Clean your ear safely.
  • Recommend the correct ear drops.
  • Show you how to use the drops properly.

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 says. “Occasionally, you might need prescription oral antibiotics and, in extreme conditions, may need to be admitted to the hospital.”​

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