Swimmer's Ear: How to Avoid this Common Problem

Summer is that time of year when millions of people head to their local beaches and pools to beat the summer heat. Unfortunately, it is also the time when some people head to hospital emergency rooms for treatment of a painful ear infection called swimmer's ear. "Swimmer's ear is one of the most common ear problems seen by ear, nose and throat physicians (otolaryngologists) during the summer months," says Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary Otologist Steven Rauch, M.D.

Otitis Externa
Medically known as external otitis, swimmer's ear is an infection of the outer ear canal that occurs mainly during humid, hot weather. It often is initiated by trauma, such as a scratch in the ear canal; or by swimming, as prolonged exposure to water softens the ear canal's skin allowing bacteria to penetrate the skin and cause an infection.

Symptoms
According to Dr. Rauch, early symptoms of swimmer's ear include:

  • Pain in and around the ear, often aggravated by movements of the jaw
  • In later stages, the infection may cause the ear canal to swell shut, resulting in hearing loss
  • There may be discharge from the ear, and the pain can become excruciating.

Treatment
Treatment for swimmer's ear can include:

  • Antibiotic ear drops
  • Oral antibiotics
  • Pain medication
  • In some cases, a wick is inserted in the ear canal to help dry out the ear.

"Fortunately," says Dr. Rauch, "the majority of cases of swimmer's ear are preventable."

Preventing Swimmer's Ear
Dr. Rauch offers the following tips for protecting the ear and preventing ear infections:

  • Do not use pens, cotton swabs or other objects to clean the ears or to remove wax from the ear canal. A healthy ear usually is self-cleaning
  • Remove any water from the ear canal after swimming or showering by placing a dropper of rubbing alcohol into each ear. The alcohol works as an antiseptic and dries out the ear canal as it evaporates
  • Use a hair dryer on a low, warm setting to blow warm air into the ear to speed up the water's rate of evaporation

    "People who are diabetic, have a hole or tube in their eardrum, have undergone ear surgery, or are prone to swimmer's ear must be extra careful to prevent water from entering their ears while they are swimming or showering," Dr. Rauch points out.

 

Page updated 5/11/09