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Swimmer's Ear

By Elise C. Allen, M.D.

Swimmer’s ear is a painful condition that occurs when moisture trapped in the ear causes the ear canal to become infected.

Symptoms of swimmer’s ear may be mild at first, but can progress quickly. Symptoms may include:

  • Discomfort or pain
  • Redness inside ear
  • Excessive itching of the ear
  • Fluid drainage from the ear
  • Feeling of fullness inside ear
  • Decreased or muffled hearing

How Did I Get Swimmer’s Ear?

The outer ear has glands that form a thin, water-repellent film on the skin inside the ear. Excessive swimming can cause this waxy coating to diminish, allowing water to enter the ear canal, where it remains, creating a moist environment for bacteria growth. Although called “swimmer’s ear,” swimming is not the only cause of this infection. Prolonged exposure to a moist environment, humid weather and heavy perspiration can also cause the condition. Other factors that may lead to swimmer’s ear include:

  • Skin conditions or allergies
  • Improper cleaning of the ear
  • Swimming in contaminated water
  • Scratches inside the ear canal from a cotton swab or other object entering the ear
  • Excessive cleaning of the ear

Prevention of Swimmer’s Ear

Swimmer’s ear can be prevented. It is important to swim wisely and remember to take days off from the water. Boys Town National Research Hospital recommends the following to help prevent swimmer’s ear:

  • Keep ears as dry as possible
  • Avoid putting foreign objects into ear
  • Prevent irritants such as soap, bubble bath mixture, hairspray and shampoo from entering the ear
  • Remove water from the ear by gently drying ears with towel and wiggling head from side to side
  • Place two drops of white vinegar in the ear canal once a week when swimming frequently

When to See a Doctor

Swimmer’s ear can be treated. If you have symptoms of this condition, schedule an appointment with a physician to determine the cause and to receive proper treatment. A physician may clean the ear using ear drops, prescribe infection-fighting ear drops or suggest pain relievers.

Do not let swimmer’s ear progress. If untreated, the infection can lead to temporary hearing loss, widespread infection, and tissue and cartilage damage.