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Preventing Swimmer's Ear

Preventing Swimmer's Ear

Swimmer’s ear used to be a summertime concern but now, in an era of indoor pools, gym memberships and backyard hot tubs, we see an increasing number of year-round swimmer’s ear infections.

What is Swimmer’s Ear?

Swimmer’s ear occurs when germs or bacteria get  trapped in your ear canal, in the presence of more water than usual.  Typically, the infection results from contaminated water from a pool, lake, hot tub or even the bath tub that gets  into your ear but can’t make its way back out.

The ear canal’s warm, moist environment is “just right” for harboring and growing bacteria, which often increase their numbers far faster than the immune system keeps up. While rarely serious, swimmers ear causes itching and discomfort in the best of cases, and it can cause excruciating pain in others.

Symptoms of swimmer’s ear include:

  • Itchy sensations inside your ear (not to be confused with the itchiness caused by seasonal allergies)
  • Redness, inflammation or swelling inside the ear that can also affect the outer ear
  • Pain when the ear is tugged or when pressure is put on the ear
  • Drainage or pus from the affected ear

Sometimes swimmer’s ear clears up on its own, but most cases result in the trip to the doctor’s office for a round of anti-bacterial and anti-inflammatory ear drops. If those don’t work and the infection worsens, we prescribe oral antibiotics.

4 Simple Tips for Preventing Swimmer’s Ear

The best way to treat swimmer’s ear is to never get it in the first place. Preventing swimmer’s ear is simple with these four tips:

Empty and dry your ears when they get wet

You can usually feel water inside your ears; it tickles and makes a funny sound – even dampening your ability to hear – as it travels through the canal. Sometimes, though, a simple drop or two slip in and down without your notice and this is enough to create an infection.

Dry your ears thoroughly every time you swim, bathe or shower. Tip your head back and forth, from side-to-side, allowing most of the water to escape on its own. You can also hold a towel to your outer ear while tipping your head on its side to help wick water away.

Note: If you’re particularly sensitive to swimmer’s ear, consider using ear plugs or a waterproof swim cap pulled tight over the ears to prevent water from getting in.

Have just enough wax, but not too much

Ear wax helps prevent ear infections, but if there is too much was, or too little, your ears are more vulnerable. Clean your ears routinely (but not too often), gently and with cotton swabs. Clean the outer ear canal only; never stick a cotton swab into your inner ear canal as this can do serious damage.

Read our post, Are Cotton Swabs Harmful or Helpful?, to learn more about safe ear hygiene. Feel like you have excess wax or build-up? Schedule an appointment with your physician to see whether or not it requires trained removal.

Take care of your skin and your health

If the skin on your ears is overly dry, cracked or compromised in any way, you are more susceptible to swimmer’s ear. If you have dry skin in and around your ears, add a drop or two of olive oil or vegetable oil, using a sterile dropper, to keep the skin moist. In addition to preventing dry skin, oil also repels water and also helps those prone to excessive wax build-up or hard ear wax.

People with eczema, psoriasis or allergic reactions causing rashes or flaky skin are more likely to develop ear infections than others. If you suffer from any of these conditions, have them treated by your doctor.

Similarly, leading a healthy lifestyle helps your immune system, giving your body a better chance at fighting off harmful bacteria before they cause a full-blown infection.

Use eardrops

Those who are prone to swimmer’s ear and/or who swim often may opt to use eardrops to prevent swimmer’s ear. Both rubbing alcohol and vinegar, or a 50/50 solution of the two, are the best options. Hydrogen peroxide used to be recommended but can harm healthy cells too, so we do not recommend it.

Never use ear drops if you suspect you have a ruptured ear drum. Those with synthetic ear tubes should also avoid ear drops.

Lay on your side (having someone else insert the drops is easiest) and add the drops to your ears after you swim or clear them of water. Hold your ear slightly up and out so the drops have a clear path into the canal. Remain with your head on its side for at least a minute or two and then repeat on the other side.

Any itching, swelling, drainage or pain in the ears should be examined by your physician. Do you suffer from swimmer’s ear or repeat ear infections? Contact the ENT department at Palouse Specialty Physicians to schedule an appointment.

Published on March 7, 2019

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